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Coram nobis, or coram vobis (or error coram nobis or error coram vobis, from the Latin "in our presence", usually translated in context as "the error before us") is a legal writ issued by a court to correct a previous error "of the most fundamental character" to "achieve justice" where "no other remedy" is available.[1]

Contents

Purpose

A coram nobis petition applies to persons who have already been convicted of a crime and have served their sentence. It may seek to remove probation requirements or restrictions, eliminate payment or obtain refund of court imposed fines, restore voting rights and gun ownership, improve employment and credit potential, remove a public stigma, and so forth, in order to restore, so far as possible, the erroneously convicted party to a pre-conviction state. Motions may be filed by heirs at law even after the original person is deceased.

In a case from 2007 (Gary Earl Neighbors v. Commonwealth of Virginia), the Supreme Court of Virginia explained in great detail the purpose of a writ of error coram nobis, quoting from a 1957 decision from the same court (Dobie v. Commonwealth):

The writ of error coram vobis, or coram nobis, is an ancient writ of the common law. It was called coram nobis (before us) in King’s Bench because the king was supposed to preside in person in that court. It was called coram vobis (before you — the king’s justices) in Common Pleas, where the king was not supposed to preside. The difference related only to the form appropriate to each court and the distinction disappeared in this country when the need for it ended. 49 C.J.S., Judgments, § 311, p. 561, n. 28. Mr. Minor says the proper designation here is coram vobis. IV Minor's Inst., 3 ed., Part I, pp. 1052-3.
The principal function of the writ is to afford to the court in which an action was tried an opportunity to correct its own record with reference to a vital fact not known when the judgment was rendered, and which could not have been presented by a motion for a new trial, appeal or other existing statutory proceeding. Black's Law Dict., 3 ed., p. 1861; 24 C.J.S., Criminal Law, § 1606 b., p. 145; Ford v. Commonwealth, 312 Ky. 718, 229 S.W.2d 470. It lies for an error of fact not apparent on the record, not attributable to the applicant’s negligence, and which if known by the court would have prevented rendition of the judgment. It does not lie for newly-discovered evidence or newly-arising facts, or facts adjudicated on the trial. It is not available where advantage could have been taken of the alleged error at the trial, as where the facts complained of were known before or at the trial, or where at the trial the accused or his attorney knew of the existence of such facts but failed to present them. 24 C.J.S., Criminal Law, § 1606 at p. 148; 49 C.J.S., Judgments, § 312 c., pp. 563, 567. [2]

Limits

Writs of coram nobis cannot be used to address issues of law previously ruled upon by the court but only to address errors of fact that were not known at time of trial or were knowingly withheld during and after trial from judges and defendants by prosecutors, and which might have altered the verdict were they presented at the trial.

Writ abolished in civil cases

In United States federal courts, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, under rule 60 (e) abolished the writ of coram nobis in civil cases.[3] However, in United States v. Morgan, the Supreme Court hold that coram nobis was still available in federal court for criminal cases.[4]

Examples

One relatively well-known example was in regard to the Supreme Court case Korematsu v. United States (1944), which upheld a conviction pertaining to the World War II Japanese American internment. In 1984, a federal district court judge granted a writ of coram nobis, overturning the conviction.[5]

In another case, Alger Hiss, convicted in 1950 on two counts of perjury for lying under oath about having spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s, filed for a writ of coram nobis in the 1970s, after the FBI released certain records that Hiss argued showed that he had not received a fair trial (and after Richard Nixon, a leading voice against Hiss on the HUAC committee, was disgraced by the Watergate scandal). A federal district court denied the petition, holding that the documents "raise no real question whatsoever, let alone a reasonable doubt, as to Hiss's guilt," that "[t]he trial was a fair one by any standard," and that "[t]he jury verdict rendered in 1950 was amply supported by the evidence — the most damaging aspects of which were admitted by Hiss." [6]

References

  1. ^ Bonadonna v. Unknown Defendant, 181 Fed. Appx. 819 (C.A. 11 (Ga.), 2006).
  2. ^ 'Neighbors v. Commonwealth', 274 Va. 503 ., citing 'Dobie v. Commonwealth', 198 Va. 762, 768-69 (1957).
  3. ^ Cornell Law School website
  4. ^ US legal definitions website
  5. ^ Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984).
  6. ^ 'In re Hiss', 542 F.Supp. 973, 999 (S.D.N.Y. 1978)., affirmed ' 722 F.2d 727 (2d Cir. 1983)., cert. denied ' 464 U.S. 890 (1983)..
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