What Is Exoneration?

Exoneration refers to a legal declaration that a person who was previously convicted of wrongdoing is innocent. This is usually due to new evidence or facts clarifying their non-involvement in the alleged crime.

The process often involves appeals and can result from various circumstances like new DNA results unavailable during the original trial or misidentification errors uncovered after conviction. 

This is different from an acquittal; an acquittal happens within the context of original criminal proceedings. When charges are initially brought against someone, but there’s insufficient proof for conviction — leading to a not guilty verdict— they’re acquitted. An acquittal signifies that the prosecution failed to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

How Does Exoneration Happen?

There are several avenues for exoneration in Pennsylvania, and they most often include:

Direct Appeal

A direct appeal is one of the ways to attempt exoneration in Pennsylvania. This usually involves a legal argument that mistakes were made by the trial court, causing an incorrect verdict or unfair trial. The Superior Court handles such appeals and considers only issues that were originally preserved during the original proceedings at lower courts.

Here are a few key points related to direct appeal: 

Reversal of Conviction/Sentence

If your direct appeal is successful, it could potentially result in a reversal of conviction or sentence. 

No New Evidence

The Superior Court won’t ordinarily consider new evidence not presented at the original trial. Rather, it scrutinizes the application of law during your initial trial based on existing records from this proceeding. 

Reviewing Objections

When your lawyer objects during your trial, they’re calling the court’s attention to what they perceive as an error or issue that could prevent a fair proceeding.

If the court overrules this objection and permits certain actions despite your lawyer’s concerns, these objections ‘preserve’ those issues for possible appeal later.

Failing to timely object during trial generally forfeits your right to raise these issues later in appellate courts. 

Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)

In Pennsylvania, a PCRA petition is another legal remedy for individuals convicted of a crime who feel they’ve been unjustly sentenced or wrongfully convicted. Under this act, you’re allowed to seek relief by petitioning at the Court of Common Pleas on various grounds, including:

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Ineffective assistance of counsel occurs when a defendant’s attorney fails to perform their legal duties adequately, and this failure adversely impacts the outcome of the case.

This inadequate representation could encompass various shortcomings, such as failure to investigate or present vital evidence, errors during plea negotiations, or providing erroneous advice – all ultimately causing prejudice to you in court proceedings.

Discovery of New Evidence

This happens when you uncover fresh evidence post-trial which could not have been discovered earlier despite using reasonable diligence. Further, this discovery would possibly lead to a different outcome if introduced in court during the original proceedings. 

This new evidence might prove innocence, contradict prior evidence, or present an entirely alternate narrative concerning your case.

Change in Constitutional Law

This pertains to revisions, reinterpretations, or new understanding of constitutional rights that have substantial implications on legal issues relating to your case. In the context of post-conviction relief, such changes may affect elements foundational to your conviction. 

For example, a new court ruling alters previous understandings about acceptable legal procedures, certain rights of defendants, or the interpretation/application of relevant criminal statutes.

What Happens Once The PCRA Petition Is Filed?

Once the petition is filed, courts don’t have definitive time limits in which they must resolve these claims; depending on the case’s complexity and the court’s administrative timing, it might take months to years before resolution.

Depending on your specific allegations made within the filed PCRA petition—particularly if new evidence has been discovered—an evidentiary hearing might be conducted, allowing witnesses to testify about newly surfaced facts related to the claim. 

However, matters dealing solely with alleged legal errors or ineffective counsel wouldn’t necessarily trigger new hearings, as the determination of these issues depends more on technical aspects of the law.

The Commonwealth (prosecution) generally responds to a PCRA petition by filing a Motion to Dismiss, in which it argues against the merits of your case and details why it should not proceed.

Evidentiary Hearing

If an evidentiary hearing is granted, it’s much like a mini-trial where both sides will present evidence and arguments pertaining to the issues raised in the petition. These proceedings are presided over by a judge who subsequently determines the merits of your claim based on presented testimonies and supporting documents.

Decision on PCRA Petition

After evaluating all evidence and considering the presented arguments during an evidentiary hearing (or through simply reviewing court records in cases where such hearings were not necessary) the court will then make a decision about your PCRA petition.

If your PCRA petition is successful, the court may order a new sentencing hearing or even a new trial based on factors presented in your case. 

If you have any questions or need assistance related to exoneration or appeals, don’t hesitate to contact us to schedule a free consultation with our trusted West Chester criminal defense lawyer.