The Writ of Error Coram Nobis: The Legal Hail Mary Pass

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on April 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What is a writ of error coram nobis and what does it take to have a court grant coram nobis relief?

The First Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion earlier this week, stating that a writ of error coram nobis is the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

The petitioner had been a court employee of the Massachusetts state court for 20 years. In 1995, he was charged with conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud.

He eventually pleaded guilty and did his jail time.

After serving his sentence, he filed a writ of error coram nobis, arguing that his conviction was erroneous and that the facts establishing the elements of his original conviction were not properly alleged.

A writ of error coram nobis is the last resort used to reopen a case for fundamental errors of fact or law.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has a three-part test to determine if a petitioner can obtain relief by filing a writ of error.

First, the petitioner must explain his failure to seek earlier relief from judgment.

The petitioner then must show that he continues to suffer significant collateral consequences from the judgment.

Finally, the petitioner must demonstrate that the judgment resulted from an error of the most fundamental character.

But even passing the three-part test doesn't clear a petitioner's path to relief under the writ. The court has discretion over the decision to grant or deny the writ. Think of it as a veto authority.

As the court writes, "the bottom line is that the writ of error coram nobis should issue only under circumstances compelling such action to achieve justice.

In short, if you plan to petition the First Circuit Court of Appeals (or any court) with a writ of error coram nobis, you better have a rock solid argument with some major allegations of collateral damage.

Like the court said, it's a Hail Mary pass.

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