POST-CONVICTION RELIEF / HABEAS
What is Post-Conviction Relief?
Typically, post-conviction relief refers to the process of filing petitions for “habeas corpus” either in state court or in federal court. This process is generally after the trial and sentence are finalized, and after any direct appeals have been decided (including any rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court).
If you are a state prisoner, the post-conviction process in federal district court begins by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The federal court can grant relief (such as a declaration that your state conviction is unconstitutional) if your conviction is contrary to “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or is “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts” that were presented in your state trial proceedings. If the federal district court denies relief, then you may have the right to appeal that denial, but only if the court grants a “certificate of appealability” allowing you to do so. If you are denied a certificate of appealability, then you may ask the federal court of appeals to grant a certificate of appealability, but otherwise you will not have any further right of appeal.
If you are a federal prisoner, the post-conviction process begins by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Much to the surprise of many criminal defendants, this petition goes back to the very same federal district judge that presided over the trial proceedings, and that judge gets to decide whether to grant or deny relief (and, equally importantly, whether to hold an evidentiary hearing on the petition).
What Issues Can a Federal Prisoner Raise in a Post-Conviction Petition for Habeas Corpus?
Some of the most common issues raised relate to “ineffective assistance of counsel,” which is the argument that your trial lawyer failed to provide a reasonably competent defense, which thereby resulted in a worse outcome than a more competent lawyer would likely have achieved. A post-conviction petition for habeas corpus can also include arguments based on newly discovered evidence of actual innocence, or based on new rulings of the Supreme Court that changed the law that was in effect at the time of trial or direct appeal.
Keep in mind that a one-year statute of limitations applies to these petitions. That means that you must typically file the petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 within one year after the date on which the judgment of conviction became final. In some cases, you may also have a year from the date that new evidence is discovered, or from the date on which the Supreme Court recognizes a new right.