The Montana Innocence Project takes on cases in the post-conviction stage after direct appeals. To understand what that means procedurally, we have unpacked the differences between direct appeals and post-conviction relief below:
Direct Appeals: Following a conviction at a trial court, the next step—if a wrongful conviction occurred—is to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, because there isn’t a separate appellate court in Montana. If this is unsuccessful, depending on the types of claims raised on appeal, a defendant may be able to appeal to the Federal Courts. Defendants have a right to counsel for direct appeals.
One common problem defendants have when raising an appeal is that their attorney at trial did not object. Most commonly, appellate courts will not review an issue unless it is “preserved in the record,” meaning the attorney objected during the trial.
State Post-Conviction Relief/State Habeas: This occurs after direct appeals are unsuccessful. This stage is typically where innocence organizations, like us, come in. In fact, generally, MTIP requires that potential clients already exhaust their direct appeals before we take on their case.
State post-conviction relief starts at the trial court where the trial originally occurred with the same judge. Then, if unsuccessful, a defendant may appeal to the state supreme court, and, depending on the issues raised, the defendant may be able to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.
State post-conviction relief is different from direct appeals because you no longer have a right to counsel. Defendants either have to hire an attorney or acquire an attorney who will represent them for free, as innocence organizations do.
State post-conviction relief is also different from direct appeals because you are limited in the types of evidence and issues you can raise. For instance, a person seeking post-conviction relief may only bring a claim within one year of their conviction becoming final, meaning within one year of the final reviewing court ruling on their case.
Outside of the one year time period, a person must raise newly discovered evidence that establishes their innocence. If a person raises this claim, they have one year from the date they should have or did discover the evidence to bring a post-conviction claim, and the evidence must be newly discovered, meaning it wasn’t presented at trial or it wasn’t within the defendant’s possession before or during the trial.