Reopening a Criminal Case – Motions for a New Trial

So, you want to reopen a criminal case.

If you were convicted by a judge or jury, or plead guilty, it is difficult to go back later and undo, or “vacate”, the plea or conviction.  But it is not always impossible.  It can sometimes be done with a Motion for a New Trial.

If your conviction:

  • was the result of unfairness,
  • makes you eligible for deportation,
  • makes you ineligible for a firearms permit or other Constitutional right,
  • is keeping you from participating in your child’s school events,
  • is based on recanted testimony, 
  • OR, if there is newly discovered evidence that was not known at the time of your conviction,

it may be worth investigating the possibility of vacating the conviction and reopening the case.

Generally, the legal system views guilty pleas and convictions after a trial as closed and it wants them to stay that way.  There are some legal issues, however, that might make it possible to go back and vacate an old guilty finding.

Whether your case can be reopened is a question that can only be answered after:

  • a careful review of the facts of the case,
  • a careful review of the procedures that took place in court
  • a careful review of the new evidence.

A lot depends on how much of the court record can be recovered and whether your lawyer’s file can be obtained.

Let’s be realistic. If you are trying to reopen an old case, the odds are very much against you.  But it may be worth investigating your options. Be aware that you will have to spend money for a lawyer and possibly an investigator before you even find out if the case can be reopened. You aren’t going to get there for free.  It takes A LOT of work to do the careful review and investigation necessary to just determine if a Motion for New Trial can even be filed, let alone won.

Before we start, what will happen if I do “reopen” my case?

If a plea or conviction is vacated successfully, it is as if the plea or trial never happened. But the case does not go away.  The case goes back to the beginning, as if you had just been charged. This means that the government can prosecute you again for the charge. You may have to go through the whole process again. But it may be worth it, especially if significant time has passed since you were first charged.

It is important to know that if you are successful in reopening your case, the fight is not over.

How is a criminal case “reopened” after a conviction?

A case is “reopened” when a judge grants a Motion for a New Trial.  Lots of these motions are filed. Very few are granted.

But there are some cases in which the best chance for success is in the appeal process.  Even long after a conviction, there could be reasons that a case should be reopened and a new trial granted.  This is true especially if major errors are found to have occurred during the original trial.  A new trial also could be granted if significant new evidence comes to light to suggest that you could be innocent.

For a judge to grant a motion for a new trial, there has to have been some type of mistake that prevented you from being tried fairly.

A motion for a new trial is really a request for the court to overturn the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge, so there must be strong grounds for the request.

Legal Grounds for New Trial

Grounds for a motion for a new trial fall mostly into two areas:

  • If new evidence has been discovered;
  • “In the interest of Justice.”
New Evidence.

Courts are very clear about what new evidence can justify a new trial. There are four general conditions that have to be met for new evidence to be considered as grounds for a new trial:

  • The new evidence was not known about by the defense at trial;
  • The new evidence is “material” – important – and cannot just be cumulative or repteitive of other evidence that was presented at trial;
  • The failure to learn of the new evidence was not due to lack of diligence on part of the defense; and
  • The new evidence is important enough that it could likely result in a different outcome if a new trial is allowed.

So, if the defense searched for an alibi witness before your trial and couldn’t find him, but has found him now, that could be grounds for a new trial.

The Interest of Justice.

Unlike in the discovery of new evidence, ‘in the interest of justice’ can be interpreted more broadly. This gives the court more discretion to determine if a new trial is needed. While there is no limiting definition of “in the interest of justice”, some examples of possible grounds for a new trial in the interest of justice are:

  • Bias in the jury;
  • Clear jury misconduct;
  • Improper jury instructions given at trial;
  • Lack of evidence to support the conviction;
  • Prosecutorial misconduct, such as false prosecution, tampering with witnesses or evidence;
  • Misconduct of the judge, such as the judge making improper comments to the jury, or not responding appropriately to jury questions;
  • Conflict of interest involving the judge.

A motion for a new trial goes before the same judge who ruled over the first trial. So, it is unusual for the judge to find that he made a legal error. That said, a judge might realize that he made a mistake and will grant the motion for a new trial because he wants to avoid the case being overturned in an appeal.

Courts also have been known to grant a new trial when it is believed that the defendant’s constitutional rights were violated, such as the right to remain silent, or when the waiver of a constitutional right was not done voluntarily.

Starting the process.

If you have a conviction that you believe should be vacated, do not wait to take action. Investigation and analysis of the case can take a long time, witnesses and records can disappear and be lost.

First, you need a skilled, experienced criminal defense lawyer to pursue a Motion for a New Trial.  The legal issues are complex, and prosecutors fight against these motions very hard.  Judges are not enthusiastic about reopening closed cases. In some cases, even if you have a basis to proceed, the process can take years to complete.

The lawyer will need to obtain the trial record, which is the transcript of the trial, if there was one, and any motion and other hearings that were held, and all the papers filed in court, as well as the trial exhibits.  He or she will need to contact the lawyer that represented you in the case to obtain the case file.  You may need to pay for an investigator to look into the evidence, both from the original case and any new evidence you have.

This all occurs before a determination can be made about whether there are sufficient grounds to file a Motion for a New Trial. If the lawyer determines that there are grounds, then he will prepare and file the motion, and request a hearing.

“Reopening” the case is one way to proceed. It may be that, even if you might be able to vacate the conviction, there are other options that make more sense given your circumstances.  Since vacating the conviction means starting the case over again, it may make more sense to just seal the record of the conviction, or to seek only to change the sentence you received.

It makes sense to consult a lawyer who has experience with criminal cases and in vacating convictions.  If your case was in a Massachusetts court, call us and we can discuss your case and your options. Consults are free.