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The Rights of the Accused following Trial - Habeas Corpus

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A defendant who has filed all possible appeals may thereafter petition the courts for habeas corpus relief. Habeas corpus relief can consist of a new trial, a new sentence, or outright release from incarceration. Habeas corpus relief is available only to defendants who are incarcerated.

A habeas corpus petition is a civil suit filed against the prisoner's jailer. In the suit, the prisoner must allege that she was deprived of a constitutional right in the case, and that continued incarceration is unlawful. Typical bases for habeas corpus petitions include complaints about the trial, including ineffective assistance of counsel, discrimination in the jury selection, juror misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, violation of the right to be free from self-incrimination, and similar issues pertaining to constitutional rights. Notably, a prisoner may not challenge a Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) violation in a habeas corpus petition. Furthermore, a claim of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence is not a basis for habeas corpus relief.

State court defendants may file a round of habeas corpus petitions in the state courts and, if a federal constitutional question is involved, another round in the federal courts. Many states limit the number of times that a prisoner may file habeas corpus petitions to one round. In most states, this means one petition at the trial court level, one petition to an appeals court, and one petition to the state's highest court. Some states have only trial courts and a high court, which effectively limits the possible number of habeas corpus petitions in state court to two.

A prisoner whose conviction came from federal court may file habeas corpus petitions only in the federal court system. In 1996, Congress passed restrictions on habeas corpus petitions in federal court. The statutes created strict filing deadlines for state prisoners filing habeas corpus petitions in federal court, limited the time that a court may spend on petitions, limited the opportunities for evidentiary hearings, limited the capacity to challenge facts determined at trial, required federal courts to give deference to the legal conclusions of the state courts, and made it more difficult for prisoners to file successive habeas corpus petitions.

Under the federal act, the filing deadlines for state prisoners filing in federal court are determined beginning with the date of the last direct review by a court. For prisoners who come from states that provide counsel to prisoners, the filing deadline is six months after the date of the "direct review" of the state court's final judgment. The term "direct review" is not defined in the legislation, but commentators believe that it refers to the date of the last review in state court. For prisoners petitioning from states that do not provide free counsel, the filing deadline is one year. The statute of limitations, or limited amount of time during which actions can be brought or rights enforced, is tolled (overwritten), however, by certain events, including the discovery of new evidence for a constitutional claim.

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