When a U.S. citizen has been convicted of a crime she did not commit, there are several ways to attack the conviction and try to get it overturned or thrown out. Many of the steps are time-sensitive, so it's important for the accused to act quickly and consult with a lawyer who has experience appealing verdicts.
Request a New Trial
Immediately after a conviction, the person found guilty of the crime can ask the judge for a new trial if there were problems during the first trial that made it unfair. For instance, he might be entitled to a new trial if he learns that a juror engaged in misconduct such as talking to the media about the case during the trial. A new trial could also be granted if there was misconduct by the prosecutor or if the judge didn't properly instruct the jury about the law. In federal cases, such a motion must be filed within 14 days of the conviction. Each state sets its own deadlines, which may be shorter or longer than the federal standard.
Raise New Evidence
A person can also ask for a new criminal trial if he learns of important new evidence that he could not have known about at the time the first trial began. For instance, if a witness comes forward and says she saw the crime being committed by someone else, the accused may be able to have a new trial. Under federal law, a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence can only be filed within three years of the conviction. Each state has its own rules and deadlines, which vary based on where the trial took place.
Request a Directed Verdict
After being convicted, the defendant can ask a judge to enter a not-guilty verdict, also called an acquittal, even after a jury finds her guilty. An acquittal means the jury's decision clearly was not supported by enough credible evidence to find her guilty of the crime. There are three opportunities to make this kind of motion. First, the accused can ask for a judgment in her favor during the trial itself after the prosecution puts on its evidence, if that evidence isn't strong enough to support a finding of guilty. The motion can then be renewed at the close of the defense's case but before the jury reaches its decision. Finally, the accused can bring this motion after the jury reaches a verdict of guilty.
The jury's decision to find someone guilty is not the last chance the accused has to be heard in court. If the accused believes that the trial was not fair and the conviction was improper, he can ask a higher court to review the case. This is called an appeal. Some common reasons people appeal criminal convictions are that their lawyer didn't properly represent them during the trial, the judge allowed the jury to hear irrelevant evidence, or the judge gave the jury the wrong instructions about the law. The appellate court reviews the initial trial and decides whether there were errors that made it unfair to the accused. All people convicted of crimes have the right to file one appeal. If they do not get a favorable decision from the first appeal, they can ask an even higher court, such as a state supreme court or the U.S. Supreme Court, to review that decision. Those higher courts typically have discretion to decide whether to hear the case.
After the person convicted of the crime has exhausted all of his available avenues for appeal, there is one additional way he can challenge the length or conditions of the prison sentence he received or the validity of his imprisonment. In the law, this is called a "habeas corpus" petition. This type of petition can be heard in federal court whether the conviction happened in state or federal court. In a habeas corpus proceeding, the court evaluates whether the prisoner's continued confinement violates his constitutional rights, either because the sentence is too harsh or because the underlying conviction was improper.
Seek Outside Help
There are many organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, and many of them work for free or for a low charge. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions have helped people falsely convicted of crimes to establish their innocence and get out of jail. Private civil rights attorneys may also be able to provide assistance.
- Peter Ginter/Photodisc/Getty Images