How Newly Discovered Evidence Can Change the Outcome of a Closed Case
The thought of being arrested and charged with a crime that you did not commit is a nightmare shared by many. Most people have faith in the criminal justice process and trust that if someone is wrongfully arrested, the judge or jury will ultimately come to the right conclusion. However, that is not always the case. As we’ve seen over the past several years, there has been a rash of wrongful convictions in the headlines, including some involving the most serious crimes of murder and rape.
What happens if someone convicted of an offense later discovers newly available evidence that can prove they did not commit the crime?
New Mexico state law provides several mechanisms for challenging a conviction based on newly discovered evidence. However, these laws are exceedingly complex, and anyone who believes that they are entitled to relief should reach out to an experienced New Mexico appellate or post-conviction lawyer for assistance. Doing so is crucial, because there are strict timelines imposed on those seeking review of a conviction, and often, they only get one shot at making their case.
How Courts Handle Claims of Newly Discovered Evidence
Before delving into the process of filing for the review of a sentence based on newly discovered evidence, it is helpful to better understand how the court system works. After the prosecution files charges against a defendant, the case is heard in a trial court. However, before a case goes to trial, it proceeds through various pre-trial phases, including the discovery phase.
Discovery refers to the process in which both sides provide evidence to the other side that they intend to use at trial. Under state and federal law, the prosecution is required to provide the defense with all material evidence relevant to guilt or innocence. Thus, the state must share any exculpatory evidence during discovery. While the defense must hand over certain evidence it plans to use, the discovery requirements are not reciprocal, meaning the defense does not need to provide all evidence to the prosecution.
Once discovery is complete, the case will eventually proceed toward trial. If the defendant is convicted, this begins the direct-appeal process. An appeal is a legal proceeding challenging the outcome of a case, based on alleged errors made in the trial court. An appellate court will review the record at trial and determine if the lower court made any errors requiring reversal or modification of the defendant’s conviction or sentence. Claims of newly discovered evidence do not fit squarely within the direct-appeal process, because these claims are not based on any mistake made by the trial court.
Under New Mexico Rule of Criminal Procedure 5-614, a defendant can request a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. But there are very strict time limits regarding when a defendant can bring a motion for new trial based on newly discovered evidence. A defendant has two years from the date of “final judgment” to file a motion for new trial based on newly discovered evidence. Final judgment is not always easy to define; however, in this context, it is typically when the judge or jury convicts the defendant and finds them guilty.
What Happens If a Defendant Discovers New Evidence More Than Two Years After Final Judgment?
It is not uncommon for a situation to arise where a defendant comes across newly discovered evidence more than two years after final judgment. For example, given the relatively recent role of DNA in criminal trials, a defendant convicted of a crime thirty years ago may discover exculpatory evidence decades later. In this situation, the defendant could not file a motion for a new trial under Rule 5-614, because the two-year time limit will have passed.
Defendants in this position, however, can pursue a post-conviction petition for relief. Post-conviction petitions are also called habeas corpus petitions. If the direct appeal process is a road to potential relief, the post-conviction process can be thought of as a parallel highway. It is a separate road, but it can help defendants get to the same place.
A defendant can file a state or federal habeas corpus petition. However, before a defendant can file a federal petition, they need to exhaust their state-court remedies. And before a defendant can file a state petition, they need to exhaust their direct-appeal remedies. In other words, post-conviction petitions are a last resort, intended to prevent wrongful convictions when there are no other ways of obtaining relief.
Both the direct appeal and post-conviction processes are extraordinarily complex. And while they both can provide relief to defendants who locate newly discovered evidence, it is much better to ensure a thorough investigation before the trial begins. Post-conviction petitions have a very low rate of success, in part, because many of these petitions are filed pro se, meaning without the representation of counsel. Having an experienced New Mexico criminal defense legal practitioner can significantly increase the chances of success.
Did You Come Across Newly Discovered Evidence After Being Convicted of a Serious New Mexico Crime?
If you were convicted of a serious crime and later discovered newly available evidence, you may be able to obtain a new trial. However, it is important that you reach out to the dedicated post-conviction attorneys at the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices as soon as possible. Our respected team of criminal appeal and post-conviction lawyers command an impressive knowledge of this complex area of the law. We can work with you to identify all newly discovered evidence and present it to the court in a timely manner to ensure that your claim gets the attention it deserves. To learn more about how we can help, give us a call or reach out to us through our online form.