For many defendants, a verdict of “guilty” signals the end of their legal battle. But when the prosecutor commits errors, the relevant law has changed, or the defendant had ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant may get a second chance through post-conviction relief. Defendants convicted as juveniles have had their life without parole convictions changed to life with parole. Other defendants have gotten new trials with effective counsel and received a “not guilty” verdict. Post-conviction relief is a legal process which takes place after a conviction. The goal of post-conviction relief is to review and correct errors made at trial, a plea hearing, or sentencing. In North Carolina, defendants request post-conviction relief through a Motion for Appropriate Relief.
What is a Motion for Appropriate Relief?
North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1411 states that a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) may be filed by a defendant in order for the defendant to obtain relief from errors committed in the trial division, or to obtain other post-trial relief. The “trial division” includes not only trials, but also plea hearings, arraignments, discovery, and police investigations. Common errors include ineffective assistance of counsel, police or prosecutorial misconduct, and newly discovered evidence. A MAR does not start a new proceeding, but rather continues the original cause or trial.
The Steps of a Motion for Appropriate Relief
There are a few different requirements that must be met and steps that must be followed for a defendant to be successful in obtaining post-conviction relief via a MAR.
Step 1: Get It In Writing
First, a MAR typically must be in writing and it must meet all 3 of the following requirements: (1) it must state the grounds for the motion, (2) it must set forth the relief sought, and (3) it must be timely filed. The only time a MAR can be made orally if it is (1) made in open court before the judge who presided at the defendant’s trial, and (2) within 10 days of the conviction.
Step 2: File Your Motion
A written MAR brought in superior court must be filed with the clerk of superior court of the district where the defendant was indicted. In a noncapital case, the MAR must be served on the district attorney. In a capital case—a case where the defendant faces the death penalty if convicted—the MAR must be served on the Attorney General, in addition to the district attorney. The time to file a MAR varies by the type of claims the motion raises. The clerk is supposed to alert the resident, or head, superior court judge of the motion. The resident superior court judge will assign the MAR to themselves or to another superior court judge.
If the MAR is being brought in superior court and by an attorney on behalf of the defendant, there are additional requirements. The attorney must certify in writing that there is a sound legal basis for the motion and that the motion is being made in good faith. The attorney is additionally required to notify both the district attorney’s office and the defendant’s prior attorney of the motion. The attorney must review the trial or plea hearing transcript or make a good-faith determination that the transcript doesn’t need to be entirely read. If there is no transcript available, the attorney must certify in writing what efforts were undertaken to locate the transcript.
Step 3: Await the Judge’s Findings
The assigned judge will conduct an initial review of the motion to determine whether there should be an evidentiary hearing. If there are questions of fact, a defendant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing to resolve the questions. If the judge decides that all the claims alleged in the motion are frivolous, the judge may deny the motion. If the motion alleges non-frivolous claims and presents enough information to warrant an evidentiary hearing of the claims, the judge may direct the State to file an answer. After an answer is filed, the judge may schedule a hearing. When a MAR raises only questions of law, the judge can decide the MAR without holding an evidentiary hearing. Questions of law are questions like, “was the evidence sufficient to support the conviction?” Or “was the statute interpreted by the judge correctly?” Questions of fact could be questions like “was the defendant’s counsel ineffective?” Or “did the witness lie under oath?”
Step 4: The Result
If a court grants a MAR, there are several types of relief available to a defendant: (1) A new trial on all or any of the charges if the defendant was convicted at a trial, (2) dismissal of all or any of the charges, (3) vacation of a plea agreement if the defendant was convicted via plea, (4) resentencing on all or any of the charges, or (5) any other appropriate relief.
What Type of Claims May be Alleged in a MAR?
Certain errors must be asserted within 10 days after entry a judgment of guilty by the court or the jury, while others can be raised at any time.
N.C.G.S. § 15A-1414 lists the “10-day errors.” These are errors made during a trial that require a quick resolution in order to ensure the defendant received a fair and impartial trial. They include (1) the ruling on a motion was contrary to the law, (2) the evidence was insufficient to justify submitting the case to the jury, (3) the jury instructions were erroneous, (4) the verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence, and (5) the sentence imposed on the defendant was not supported by evidence introduced at trial or the sentence hearing.
N.C.G.S. § 15A-1415 lists the grounds of a Motion for Appropriate Relief that can be made more than 10 days after an entry of judgment. The most common grounds of MARs made more than 10 days after a judgment include the following: (1) the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the defendant or over the subject matter, (2) the conviction was obtained in violation of the United States or North Carolina Constitution, and (3) ineffective assistance of counsel. Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are considered questions of fact that entitle the defendant to an evidentiary hearing.
Limitations on Motions for Appropriate Relief
A defendant typically cannot file multiple MARs because there is a statutory bar preventing them from doing so. Judges will typically deny any subsequent MARs a defendant may file without an evidentiary hearing, even if subsequent MARs raise new claims. The only way to overcome this bar is by (1) showing good cause for not automatically denying the MAR and demonstrating “actual prejudice from the defendant’s claim” or (2) showing that “failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.”
While it is possible to overcome the bar, it is statutorily very difficult. N.C.G.S. § 15A-1419(c) states that good cause may only be shown if the defendant establishes, by the preponderance of the evidence, that failure to raise the current claim in previous MARs was the (1) “the result of State action in violation of the Constitution,” (2) the result of a new federal or State right that is applied retroactively, or (3) “based on a factual predicate that could not have been discovered through the exercise of reasonable diligence in time to present the claim on a previous post-conviction review.” N.C.G.S. § 15A-1419(d) states that actual prejudice may only be shown if, by a preponderance of the evidence, the defendant establishes that errors “made during the trial, plea hearing, or sentencing worked to the defendant’s actual and substantial disadvantage,” raising the possibility of that a different result would’ve occurred but for the error.
Issues Within the MAR System in North Carolina
MARs serve as an important recourse for defendants who experience errors at trial; however, the MARs system in North Carolina is not without its issues.
The first issue is where MARs are required to be filed. MARs must be filed in the county of conviction, which oftentimes means the same judge and assistant district attorneys who were involved with the original conviction could be involved with the MAR. N.C.G.S. § 15A-1413(b) allows the judge who presided at the trial to rule on a MAR alleging errors in that trial. It is highly unlikely that a judge would find that they committed abuse of judicial discretion. Assistant district attorneys may argue strongly against prosecutorial misconduct claims of themselves or colleagues.
Another issue has recently arose with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016). The Court held in Miller that life sentences without parole for juvenile defendants are unconstitutional. In Montgomery, the Court held that Miller is applied retroactively. In response to these rulings, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services’ post-conviction team filed MARs on behalf of inmates who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole alleging they were entitled to relief because their sentences were now unconstitutional. While these MARs helped a lot of inmates get new sentences, it is possible NCPLS inadvertently interfered with defendants’ ability to file subsequent MARs on other errors. NCPLS only filed MARs on that limited issue and did not review the defendants’ whole case for additional issues. If a defendant had additional issues other than sentencing, it will now be very difficult to get relief on those issues as well.
Despite the flaws in the MAR system, post-conviction relief serves as an important check on trial court proceedings and plea hearings. If there were no remedies available outside of the appeals process, a defendant whose rights were violated during a plea hearing or a trial would have no means of relief. The courthouse doors would be effectively closed to the wronged defendants. Post-conviction relief serves as a check on trial courts to remind them that even when there is no right to appeal, there are other avenues from which a wronged defendant could find relief.