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Coram Nobis Claim Must Be Pursued in a Timely Manner

Coram nobis relief (by petition for a writ of error coram nobis) is available in Tennessee to challenge final judgments in criminal cases when there is newly discovered evidence which may undermine the validity of the conviction. There is a one year statute of limitations from the day the judgment becomes final, for filing a petition. However, in many cases the newly discovered evidence at issue is not discovered until after the beginning of that limitations period. So there is also a due process argument for tolling of the limitations period when the grounds for relief arise after the finality of the judgment, and strict application of the limitations period would deny a reasonable opportunity to present the claim.

In the recent Tennessee case of Rossouw v. State, M2013-00604-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 3-28-2014), the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court conclusion that a petitioner's claim was untimely. In that case, the Petitioner, a non-U.S. citizen from South Africa, had pled guilty in 2001 to stalking and received "time served" on the state charge. However, he was thereafter transported into federal custody for deportation proceedings, as a stalking conviction is a deportable criminal offense. The Petitioner's counsel had advised him that he was not an immigration attorney and that criminal convictions may have immigration status consequences. The Petitioner was released on bond during the immigration proceedings and was allowed to remain in the United States due to being married to a U.S. citizen. His application for permanent residency was denied in 2009 due to the stalking conviction. The Petitioner's wife divorced him prior to the final immigration proceeding in 2012, and an order of deportation issued.

The Petitioner sought to challenge his conviction and guilty plea under coram nobis grounds, asserting that "years after" his guilty plea, he learned that the stalking victim, who had also been convicted of soliciting the murder of her ex-husband, had been subject to court-ordered psychiatric treatment.

Without ruling on whether the discovery of the victim's psychiatric treatment created a claim for relief, the trial court dismissed the petition as time-barred. The Court of Criminal Appeals, in affirming the ruling, noted that assuming the claim did arise after the finality of the 2001 judgment, the claim was not specific as to when the claim arose and that the Petitioner waited until after he faced deportation to file the claim. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded the Petitioner did not pursue the claim in a timely manner and therefore there was no reason to toll the limitations period.

For more information on challenging a final judgment of conviction, contact Hindman & Associates.

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