Post-Conviction Petitions

The law of most states and the federal government provides a means for prisoners and those under court supervision to challenge the legality of their convictions, even after their direct appeals have been exhausted, as a criminal defense lawyer Rockville MD trusts.

For many years, this kind of challenge was made under the title of habeas corpus. Although habeas corpus still exists in Maryland, in the late 1950s the state legislature consolidated a number of existing remedies into one unified statute, the Uniform Post Conviction Procedures Act (“UPPA”). Although the UPPA did not create any new rights or remedies,  it did change the procedures by which those rights would be litigated. Over the years, the law has been amended a number of times, and the courts have interpreted the Act.

An inmate seeking to challenge his conviction must file a petition for post-conviction relief with the circuit court in the county where the trial took place. There are a number of rules that have been promulgated by the courts that set out the requirements of what must be stated in the petition. Among other things, the petition must state the name and identification number of the prisoner, where he or she is being held, and specify the issues that the inmate wants the court to address.

An inmate can address a number of issues in a post-conviction petition, such as constitutional violations that may have occurred at the trial (e.g., violations of Double Jeopardy, or the Confrontation Clause), but the most common allegation is that the inmate received ineffective assistance of counsel. Almost any error that occurred at a trial can be framed in terms of ineffective assistance of counsel since an attorney is supposed to object when the correct legal procedures are not observed by the court. If the court does something it shouldn’t do, or fails to do something it should have done, the attorney is supposed to object. Thus, post-conviction proceedings frequently raise a wide range of errors made by the court in areas such as admission of inappropriate evidence, improper jury instructions, and prosecutorial misconduct. Another frequent complaint is the failure of trial counsel to properly investigate and prepare for trial. Many inmates complain that they only saw their attorneys once or twice before trial, and the attorney seemed unaware of the facts of the case.

A court is required to hold a hearing on a post-conviction petition. It cannot simply deny it without a hearing. A court is also required by the UPPA to issue a written decision addressing each of the issues raised in a post-conviction petition. If a court doesn’t do so, this is grounds for reversal on appeal. For this reason, decisions on post-conviction proceedings sometimes take months to be issued. They also, typically, take many months or in some cases years before they come to a hearing. Some of the courts are very slow at scheduling post-conviction cases.

Statistically, a post-conviction proceeding is almost always an uphill battle. Most inmates do not receive the relief that they seek. Judges tend to uphold the status quo. However, some petitioners do manage to beat the odds, usually by great effort and involvement in their cases. They study the law, review their transcripts, and persevere in their struggle to regain their freedom.


Thanks to our friends and contributors from Law Office of Daniel J. Wright for their insight into post-conviction petitions.