Exoneration is a legal tool that absolves someone of wrongdoing. If you’ve been wrongfully accused and convicted of a crime and subsequently exonerated, it signifies your innocence and releases you from any further penalties related to the conviction.
The exoneration process serves as an important mechanism in providing relief for those defendants who maintain their innocence post-conviction. It’s essential to understand why people are wrongly convicted in the first place to try to avoid this and to learn how exoneration can occur.
Wrongful convictions unfortunately occur in the criminal justice system for some of the following reasons:
Among the leading causes of wrongful convictions is mistaken identification by eyewitnesses, who can mix up perpetrators or interpret situations inaccurately. Our memories aren’t as accurate as we believe they are, and this is a serious problem in criminal investigations and proceedings.
Some defendants make false admissions of guilt under intense interrogation pressure. They may lack a clear understanding of their right to remain silent until legal counsel is present.
Errors in forensic science, misinterpreted findings, and mishandled evidence can lead to inaccurate conclusions that result in unjust convictions. This could include fingerprints recovered at the scene of a crime without following proper protocol.
Aggressive and unlawful tactics by prosecutors – like hiding exculpatory evidence and bending other ethical guidelines as they seek convictions at all costs – can also result in someone being wrongfully convicted.
The only way to ensure wrongful convictions stop occurring is to really understand why they happen.
There are several paths that can lead to an exoneration if you’ve been wrongfully convicted in Arizona, including:
In Arizona, you almost always have the right to one direct appeal of your criminal conviction (unless, as part of a plea agreement, you pled guilty and explicitly conceded this right). During an appeal proceeding, no new evidence can be presented; instead, the court investigates any legal errors made during the initial trial.
You can’t file an appeal simply because you don’t like the outcome of the case. Some of the most common grounds for filing a direct appeal include:
Appeals frequently argue that constitutional rights or due process was violated in the original proceedings or the investigation leading up to charges being filed.
You could argue there was not enough evidence presented at trial to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
If your sentence greatly differs from average punishments issued in similar cases or if protocols around sentencing haven’t been properly followed, this could give you the grounds for an appeal.
If the prosecutor engaged in serious unethical or illegal behavior during your case, your lawyer can argue this resulted in an unfair trial.
If your lawyer didn’t defend you properly, this would undermine the fairness of a trial and possibly be grounds for appeal. Proving ineffective assistance of counsel often involves showing what other lawyers with reasonable competence would have done differently.
On appeal, there are a few potential positive outcomes. You may be acquitted entirely and exonerated. This would mean that all accusations against you have been dismissed outright.
Another possible outcome is having your conviction overturned based on an error uncovered during the appeals process deemed significant enough to render your original trial unfair. If this happens, it’s most likely that the case will get remanded – sent back down to the lower court where a new, fair trial can take place.
Another path to exoneration involves seeking relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). The PCRA establishes procedures for convicted defendants to challenge their convictions after they have exhausted all levels of direct appeal.
A petition for post-conviction relief is most often filed based on one of the following grounds:
Suppose you discover evidence that was unknown or could not have been discovered at the time of trial, and this evidence could substantially change the outcome of your case. You may have grounds to challenge your conviction under the act.
A significant court decision or change in law may occur after your conviction, which could alter previous legal interpretations relevant to your case. This new interpretation might then be applied retroactively to offer relief, which could give you the right to challenge the outcome.
A crucial protection for defendants in our legal system is the right to competent counsel. If your attorney did not meet this standard due to neglected duties, lack of proper advising, or other significant errors during the trial, and their actions directly affected your trial’s outcome, you can challenge your conviction on these grounds.
To successfully assert ineffective assistance, there would need to be evidence that your attorney’s performance was deficient. Additionally, there is a reasonable probability that if you had been represented by competent counsel, the result would have been different.
If your PCRA petition is granted, you could end up getting a new trial, or you could have your sentence reduced or modified. It’s also possible for the court to vacate your conviction.
If you have any questions or believe you may be entitled to exoneration, contact our law office right away by calling (480) 656-7301 to schedule a free consultation with a Phoenix criminal defense lawyer.