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The Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus

After you are convicted in a federal criminal case, there are not many opportunities for direct appeals if you pled guilty or your attorney did not preserve errors. And because our justice system has become a system of plea bargaining instead of trials, a lot of defendants may feel like they were hustled into pleading guilty.

So, what do you do if you find new evidence later or defenses that your attorney failed to raise? If it is not too late, you may have an opportunity to file for a Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. This is often called a post-conviction petition and must be filed within 1-year from the date of conviction. However, the deadline is tolled (extended) by factors such as the pendency of direct appeals of that conviction or other extraordinary circumstances in cases involving actual innocence or governmental obstruction.

What Type of Claims Are Raised in a Habeas Corpus Petition

A habeas corpus petition is a type of collateral appeal. A collateral appeal is different from a direct appeal because the record is not closed. In a collateral appeal, the court is free to accept new evidence and to consider new arguments that were not previously adjudicated. The rules involving what is reviewable, however, can be complicated. A writ of habeas corpus challenges the fact or duration of imprisonment and is not used to address conditions of confinement.

One of the most common claims to bring up in a habeas corpus petition is that your Sixth Amendment Constitutional right to the effective representation of counsel was violated. This claim is not one specific claim but includes a broad range of objective failures committed by your trial attorney.

Since 97 percent of all federal cases end in plea bargains, the most common claims will be those related to serious errors by the attorney that caused the defendant to enter an unintelligent, involuntary, or unknowing plea of guilty. That is, if you had a strong defense that the trial attorney overlooked and failed to preserve for direct appeal or trial, the plea may be deemed unintelligent and voided.

Although meeting this criteria, in theory, should be easy when you consider the sloppiness of the prosecution’s office and the incompetence of public defenders and other low-end lawyers with huge case-loads, the courts can be hardened against invalidating a plea deal.

In order to show that a plea was involuntary, you must demonstrate the threat of physical coercion such as death threats that forced you to sign it. In order to show that a plea is unknowingly entered, you must demonstrate that you did not understand the nature of the charges that you were pleading guilty to at the time.

In order to limit the attacks on plea bargains, the courts have come up with a baseline standard for protecting the plea deal. The judge holds a hearing and records a colloquy on the record that discusses the elements of the offenses, a defendant’s right to challenge the allegations at trial, and whether anyone is coercing them in any manner to enter the plea.

This limits the success in habeas corpus petitions to expert opinions by another attorney that are along the lines of professional malpractice. Your habeas attorney has to argue that the trial attorney omitted or did something that caused you to plead guilty, and that you would not have pled guilty in the alternative.

For example, if you had a rock-solid alibi and your attorney misadvised you by misleading you to believe that this evidence was inadmissible, you would have a solid claim for relief in habeas corpus. In addition, if your attorney failed to present mitigating evidence in a death penalty case to spare your life, this would almost automatically lead to remand for resentencing.

Types of Relief

A writ of habeas corpus provides for a broad range of relief. In rare cases, federal prisoners can be released on habeas bail pending adjudication of their petitions. They can even be found innocent as a matter of law if new evidence of innocence comes out that was previously unavailable through no fault of their own. A change in the law can also lower the sentences or invalidate the conviction altogether if applicable in a retroactive manner. Ultimately, in most cases, even if the prisoner wins, the case is merely remanded for a new trial or sentencing. And, in any regard, there is no guarantee that they won’t receive a longer sentence.

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