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How do habeas corpus petitions work in Los Angeles County?
As of December 8, 2020, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office (LADA) is taking habeas corpus petitions much more seriously. If there is any evidence that a petitioner was denied his/her constitutional rights to a fair trial or sentence, LADA’s Habeas Corpus Litigation Unit (HABLIT) will investigate and possibly remedy the matter such as by pushing for a resentencing or vacating the conviction.
What is a Writ of Habeas Corpus?
A writ of habeas corpus is a legal petition brought by detained or imprisoned inmates. The inmate is challenging the constitutionality of the conviction and/or sentencing conditions.
Habeas petitions are typically the final step in a criminal case once the inmate has exhausted the appeals process and any other legal remedies. Common grounds for habeas petitions include:
The petitioner was convicted under an unconstitutional statute,
There was new evidence discovered in the case that could have changed the result, and/or
Laws affecting the case have been changed
If a court grants a petition for habeas corpus, it may (depending on the case) order than the state modify the petitioner’s sentence or release him/her outright.
Note that petitioners that are denied habeas corpus in California can file a similar petition in federal court.
What is HABLIT’s new policy?
When determining whether the petitioner’s conviction was legitimate or not, LADA’s HABLIT UNIT will consider such factors as:
The reasonable probability that the petitioner is innocent, irrespective of how poorly the petitioner may have articulated his/her arguments.
Whether the evidence supporting the conviction is still credible.
Whether the petitioner was a victim of racial discrimination by the court or prosecution.
Whether prosecutors failed to turn over evidence helpful to the defendant that may have resulted in an acquittal or lesser sentence.
Whether there was a manifest injustice that caused the trial to be fundamentally unfair.
Whether corruption tainted the fact-finding process, denying the petitioner’s right to a fair trial.
Whether the D.A. office would have still prosecuted the case if it knew then what it knows now.
In short, HABLIT will be primarily concerned with the merits of the petitioner’s arguments. Even if the habeas corpus petition suffers from proceduralerrors – such as being filed too late – HABLIT will still investigate the case as long as there is a credible claim of factual innocence.
LADA prioritizes factual innocence over procedural mistakes when investigating habeas corpus petitions.
Why is LADA reforming its Habeas Corpus policies?
Many people get falsely accused and then falsely convicted. And once a defendant gets convicted, it is very hard to get the conviction overturned. Trial judges are loath to grant new trials, and appeals judges are hesitant to overturn a verdict delivered by a jury. By the time these defendants file habeas corpus petitions, the odds are stacked against them at ever receiving justice.
By recentering HABLIT’s focus on the possible merits of each case in spite of any procedural bars, LADA is trying to right any past wrongs that fell through the cracks.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.