Justice Column

By: News Release
Sep 1st, 2017

This 80th edition of Justice For All is a summary of an Iowa procedure which could be thought of as a criminal defendant’s last resort to overturn a conviction short of a pardon from the governor.

When a criminal charge is filed against a defendant our justice system provides that individual with the right to contest the charge at a trial and the right to an appeal. If a defendant is found guilty at trial and the judgment is affirmed on appeal, Iowa law provides defendants another opportunity to challenge the conviction through a process called postconviction relief.

Iowa Code Chapter 822 grants convicted defendants the right to file, free of charge, a petition for postconviction relief. A common misconception amongst defendants is that postconviction relief is a way to litigate issues already raised and ruled upon at trial and on appeal. It is not. The law outlines specific reasons for granting a petition such as the conviction was in violation of the federal or state constitution or there exists material facts not previously presented and heard at the trial such that vacation of the conviction or sentence in the interest of justice is required.

A postconviction relief action is a civil case, not a criminal case, wherein the convicted criminal defendant is the applicant and the State of Iowa is the respondent. The postconviction relief petition must be filed within three years of the date of the conviction or the date the appeal concluded unless there is a ground of fact or law that could not have been raised within three years. If an applicant misses the deadline to file then the action is forever barred.

Once a postconviction relief petition is filed, a judge has the right to dismiss the action if he or she finds that the applicant is not entitled to relief and no purpose would be served by any further proceedings. Postconviction petitions that survive an early dismissal are set for trial before a district court judge because there is no right to a jury trial in postconviction relief cases.

Far and away the ground raised most often in postconviction relief cases is ineffective assistance of counsel. Criminal defendants have a constitutional right not just to an attorney but to a reasonably competent attorney. If the applicant did not have a reasonably competent attorney then a new trial with a different and reasonably competent defense attorney is warranted.

To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the applicant must show that their attorney failed to perform an essential duty and that there is a reasonable probability that, but for their attorney’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. It’s not enough to allege that defense counsel was ineffective because the applicant was found guilty or lost the appeal. If that were the case postconviction relief would always be granted. It’s also not enough to allege the attorney had an unsuccessful strategy or plan to win the case or made too many or too few objections as the court must avoid hindsight and second guessing when reviewing the defense attorney’s performance in the case.

While postconviction relief is very rarely granted, the procedure does continue to exist as a way to ensure defendants receive a fair trial and as a way to introduce material facts not already heard that would probably have changed the verdict and produced justice for all.