What is Post-Conviction Relief?

post-conviction relief, lawyer, attorney, Chicago criminal defense lawyer, Illinois, attorneyA criminal conviction has serious and lasting consequences for a person accused of a serious crime. Many convictions are based on circumstantial and incomplete evidence. In some cases, evidence discovered after trial may serve to prove a defendant’s innocence, or at least raise reasonable doubt about the conviction. For that reason, Illinois law does make it possible for convicted defendants to seek post-conviction relief if there is evidence of “actual innocence.”

The Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act establishes a three-stage process for determining whether a defendant is entitled to relief. In the first stage, a judge must decide if the defendant’s petition is “frivolous” or wholly without merit. If it is not, the petition proceeds to the second stage, where the defendant must make a “substantial showing” that his or her constitutional rights have been violated. The second stage is not an evidentiary hearing. Rather, the judge must decide whether the defendant has offered sufficient new evidence which, if true, would justify setting aside the conviction.

Prosecutors may ask the court to dismiss the petition at this second stage. If the court denies said motion, the petition proceeds to the third and final stage, where the judge conducts a hearing to assess the defendant’s proposed new evidence.

A Witness Changes His Story

Here is a recent example of this three-stage process in action. The underlying conviction dates back more than ten years. Prosecutors originally charged the defendant, a man from Winnebago County, with illegal possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Police found the cocaine hidden in the defendant’s apartment during a raid. Another man present at the apartment later testified against the defendant. He said he had no involvement in any illegal activity but had previously observed the defendant selling cocaine.

In 2005, about two years after a jury convicted the defendant, the witness recanted his testimony in an affidavit. The witness now said the cocaine was his and that he had hidden it in the defendant’s apartment without his knowledge. Based on this affidavit, the defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief. But at a second-stage hearing, the judge granted the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the petition. The judge deemed the witness’s recantation “inherently unreliable” and pointed to other “physical evidence” connecting the defendant to the cocaine.

The Appellate Court of Illinois reversed the trial judge’s decision and ordered a third-stage evidentiary hearing. The appeals panel said that it was inappropriate for the trial judge to make determinations about the witness’s credibility at a second-stage hearing. At this point, the court’s job was to determine whether the new evidence presented by the defense—if proven true at a third-stage hearing—would cast reasonable doubt on his conviction. Given that this defendant was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including the witness’s now recanted testimony, that appears to be the case.

Always Fight for Your Rights

The fact that a defendant may see his decade-old conviction overturned demonstrates the importance of having an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney who can pursue all avenues in protecting a person’s right to a fair trial. If you or someone you know is facing serious drug charges, contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today.

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