How Is a Wrongful Conviction Defined?

A wrongful conviction is a legal situation in which someone is convicted of a crime but shouldn’t have been for one of two specific reasons (or both).

  • The person convicted can be proven factually innocent of the crime they were charged with.
  • Procedural errors were committed that violated the convicted person’s rights.

In recent years, the first reason has seen considerable press due to the advances of DNA testing that has led to many incarcerated people being freed because the DNA in the case that belonged to the criminal didn’t match that of the prisoner.

Procedural errors can vary greatly and include anything from a witness incorrectly identifying someone as the criminal (or deliberately lying about it) to false confessions (which may have been coerced) to misleading forensic evidence to police or prosecutorial misconduct. The latter can include situations such as suppressing testimony or evidence that could free the person charged or not following established law when arresting and charging a suspect.

If neither of these categories can be proven, attempting to appeal a criminal conviction can be difficult.

What Types of Convictions Can Be Appealed?

Nearly any type of conviction could potentially be appealed, whether a minor infraction or a felony. Felonies are often high-profile cases that may receive public attention, such as when someone convicted of murder is exonerated through DNA and released. But not all wrongful convictions are for crimes as serious as that.

What Steps Are Needed to Enter a Wrongful Conviction Appeal?

There are several steps, and some have limited time frames in which they need to be accomplished. Because of the complexity of these cases and the requirements involved in appeals, it’s highly recommended that you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure the requirements and timing are all met.

Notice of Appeal

The first step is to file a notice of appeal. Usually, this must be done no later than 30 days after a misdemeanor conviction or 60 days after a felony conviction. If it’s not, the appeal will likely be denied. However, there are some situations where the notice to appeal may be filed later.

Record on Appeal

Once the notice of appeal is successfully filed, the next step is to get a copy of the record on appeal. This usually has two components: a clerk’s transcript and a reporter’s transcript. Together, they contain all the documents filed related to the case that went to trial and a transcript of every word said in the trial.

Briefs Submissions

Once your attorney has the record on appeal, they can review it to determine the grounds for the appeal and begin preparing the paperwork required to start the process. Your attorney will prepare the opening brief, which states the facts of the case and why the appeal is being filed.

Once that’s filed, the prosecutor has the right to file a brief explaining why they believe the conviction was correct. Your attorney can then respond to that brief with evidence of why it may not be correct.

Oral Arguments

As soon as the court has reviewed all the appeal briefs, it may schedule time for oral arguments. This doesn’t always happen. Only the attorneys speak to a panel of three judges when it does. Your attorney speaks first, the prosecutor speaks second, and then your attorney can address the prosecutor’s comments.

The Court Decides

After the arguments, the three judges will review the case and make a decision. This usually doesn’t happen on the same day as the arguments. The decision will be made in writing, and explain why they decided that way.

If the case is unanimous one way or the other, either the conviction will be thrown out or upheld. But if it’s not unanimous, there could be both a majority decision (two judges) and a dissent (one judge). If the majority agrees with the appeal, the case will either be dismissed or sent to a new trial or sentencing hearing. If the majority disagrees with the appeal, the conviction will hold.

If My Wrongful Conviction Appeal Is Denied, Do I Have Any Other Legal Recourse?

Yes. You may appeal to the Court of Appeal, asking them to review the decision. If they agree, the appeal will be tried again.

If that appeal fails, it’s possible to take it to the California Supreme Court. As with the earlier stage of the appeals process, there are limited time frames to request the Supreme Court review the case

If the California Supreme Court denies the appeal, there are some circumstances in which it’s possible to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is especially challenging and may result in the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, in which case the conviction holds.

The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t take cases based only on state law, so the wrongful conviction would need to have some breach of federal law, such as Constitutional rights being violated.

What Should I Do if I Believe I Have Been Wrongfully Convicted of a Crime?

Call the SoCal Law Network at 949-305-7995 to set up a free consultation. Appealing a criminal conviction can be complex. Our team of experienced, knowledgeable criminal defense attorneys can review your case’s details to identify the facets that might support an appeal. Our goal is to help you through a stressful process and achieve the best possible outcomes.