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March 30, 2020

What is a Post-Conviction Motion?


The criminal justice system is usually set in motion once an offence is committed, and prosecution ensues. But while the law does its best to guide the conduct of criminal trials, human and cognitive error are almost inevitable.

Courts of first instance especially face an arduous job and decisions may not always be the best possible in the circumstances. As a result, the post-conviction motion allows a defendant who is dissatisfied with the decision of the court file an application to have the decision voided.

Here at National Legal Professional Associates (NLPA), we firmly believe that a defendant continues to have several options open even when conviction has occurred and appeals have been exhausted. The post-conviction motion is one of these options available to a defendant.

With our extensive knowledge of criminal trials and appeals in the US, we have successfully assisted defendants and their lawyers find positive resolution to their trial. And on several occasions, we have been able to put mechanisms such as the post-conviction motion to work on their behalf.

In this article, we will explain what the post-conviction motion is and how a defendant can utilize it to obtain relief in the US criminal justice system.

The post-conviction motion in the US

The post-conviction motion is one of the post-conviction reliefs available to a person who has been convicted of a crime in state court. In Alabama, the motion is also called a Rule 32 motion. It can apply where a defendant has exhausted the standard appeal process of the law or where the defendant wants to challenge their conviction in a trial court.

The petition is usually filed at the trial court and heard by the judge who presided over the trial or did the sentencing, in plea cases. A post-conviction motion gives the trial court an avenue to remedy a conviction if it is unjust. It helps to address unfair or wrongful convictions and prevents a situation where innocent or unfairly convicted people end up in prison.

Summarily, the post-conviction motion operates to void a conviction. Where successful, there are two reliefs obtainable:

  • A voidable conviction is voided. Where, for instance, the court lacked jurisdiction to even try the offence or to convict the defendant, a rule 32 carefully exploited will win freedom.
  • A conviction obtained in violation of due process is set aside, and the defendant is given a new trial.

Where the post-conviction motion applies

To seek out a post-conviction motion, the defendant must ordinarily show that there was some vitiating factor that renders the conviction voidable. This may include proof of any one of the following:

  • That due to the provisions of the US constitution or the relevant state, there should be a new trial, new sentencing proceeding or a new relief. The constitutional claims raised should be supported with specific facts.
  • That the court did not have the jurisdiction to try the case or punish the defendant.
  • There are material facts which have just been discovered and which would operate to vacate the sentence. This may be the case where the new facts were unknown to the defendant or their attorney during sentencing or at the time of filing post-trial motions. In any case, it should be clear that even through the exercise of reasonable diligence, the facts would not have been discoverable at those periods. In addition, the facts must not be mere addition to other known facts. Lastly, it must be shown that had the facts been known during trial or sentencing, there would have been a different outcome.
  • The sentence imposed exceeds the minimum authorized by law, or is otherwise not authorized by law.
  • The petitioner is being held in custody after their sentence has expired.
  • The defendant did not exercise their right of appeal within the time allowed by law and the failure did not arise out of fault.

In Jason Sharp v. State of Alabama (2014), the defendant filed a petition for relief from judgment under Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure. He sought relief from his unconstitutionally obtained conviction and death sentence for the offenses of capital murder during rape in the first degree. The grounds supporting the petition for relief were that the defendant was denied effective assistance of counsel throughout his capital murder trial. Specifically, his lawyer did not investigate or challenge the State’s case nor adequately investigate or present mitigation evidence. The lawyer also failed to develop reasonable defense and mitigation theories or adequately present a case for the imposition of a verdict of life without the possibility of parole. The court held that the motion could be filed.

How is the post-conviction motion filed?

Only a defendant can file a post-conviction petition. You should know that there are strict limits to filing the petition and getting it right often requires expert knowledge. The petition must be filed:

  • Within 1 year of the issuance of the certificate of judgment by the Court of Criminal Appeals; or
  • Where the case is not a conviction appealed to the Criminal Court of Appeals, within 1 year of the last date on which the time for filing an appeal would have elapsed.

The defendant starts the process by filing a notice of post-conviction relief at the trial court and indicates whether they want counsel appointed. Within 60 days, the appointed counsel, or the defendant, files the petition for post-conviction relief. An incomplete petition will be returned to the defendant by the court with instructions as to how the petition is insufficient.

A defendant has 30 days after that to refile the petition and upon failure to refile, the petition will be summarily dismissed by the court. After that, the state must respond to the petition within 45 days. The defendant may file a Reply within 15 days after receipt of the response.

However, there have been exceptions to this time limit. In Maples v. Thomas, 565 U. S. (2012), although the defendant filed his post-conviction motion out of time, the US Supreme Court held that he was not at fault because his attorneys had withdrawn from the case and he did not know of that fact. It was the opinion of the court that the attorneys had “abandoned” Maples.

In Canyon v. State of Alabama (2015), the defendant filed a Rule 32 petition against his convictions for burglary, theft, and possession of a forged instrument and the 20-year sentence imposed by the court. He argued that he had suffered double jeopardy since the charge against him for theft in the first and second degree were based on the same set of facts. As such, one of the convictions should be voided.

He based his plea on the ground that his constitutional rights had been violated, specifically his right against multiple conviction for the same offense. However, while the court conceded that his claims could have been raised at trial, it found that his appeal was barred by for exceeding the 1-year time limit. On appeal though, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that he could still file. This was because the issues concerned double jeopardy and jurisdiction, which could be reviewed at any time.

We can help with your post-conviction motion

The case law shows clearly that the post-conviction motion can often involve complex rules of procedure and numerous exceptions. To be certain that you have the best chance of finding relief under the rule, it makes sense to work with very skilled professionals.

At NLPA, we can assist you and your counsel with the research you need for a successful motion. Contact us today to speak with our consultants.

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