What It Really Means When A Court Vacates A Criminal Conviction

In legal circles, criminal convictions are typically thought of as permanent. It is possible, though, under circumstances, which sometimes vary from state to state, to have certain criminal convictions overturned or vacated. That's true regardless of what the defendant's initial plea may have been, and regardless of the jury's verdict in the case, as FindLaw explains. Depending on the jurisdiction, here's a closer look at which convictions typically can and can't be vacated, what circumstances might justify an overturned conviction, and in broad terms, what the process of overturning a criminal conviction might be like.

One high-profile example of a vacated conviction came in 2019 when ex-NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who died by suicide while in prison, had his murder conviction overturned per Massachusetts state law. State law at that time stated should a defendant die while the appeals process is underway all criminal convictions would be vacated, based on 2019 CNN reporting (Hernandez' conviction was posthumously reinstated and that state law was changed). Another notable example came in 2022 when Adnan Syed, whose story was told in the popular true-crime podcast "Serial," had his murder conviction vacated two decades into serving his prison sentence, according to NPR.

Juror misconduct can justify an overturned conviction

As FindLaw goes on to note, circumstances which justify a vacated or overturned criminal conviction vary from state to state, but generally speaking evidence of juror misconduct in the court proceedings, such as failure to disclose outside influence or bias, is enough in most jurisdictions (via U.S. Legal). Other examples of what might lead to a vacated criminal conviction include a breached plea agreement, evidence of bias in the court itself, or errors on the part of the defense on behalf of their client. In the Syed case, crucial evidence was found to have been withheld from his attorneys, based on NPR reporting.

Mistakes or other examples of ineffectual performance by the defense is the most common reason overturned conviction cases are pursued, and the process to have a conviction overturned most often begins with a motion filed by defense attorneys on their client's behalf, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It's important to note that in some states, the conviction will not be completely expunged from an individual's record. If successful, their record will instead indicate the verdict was later overturned, vacated, or dismissed, as the ACLU goes on to note.

Not all convictions can be vacated

Again, the particulars of how convictions are overturned, and what kind of convictions are eligible to be vacated, vary widely. In broad terms, though, most jurisdictions consider certain types of convictions ineligible. For both misdemeanor and felony convictions In Washington State, for example, certain violent sexual offenses are not able to be overturned, nor are convictions for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI), according to the ACLU. To be eligible, the defendant must not have already completed their sentence or paid fines in full, and no additional court case can be pending, among other stipulations. Those with multiple convictions may also have more than one overturned.  

According to NPR , there were 2,400 vacated convictions in the U.S. in the years spanning 1989 to 2019, and withholding evidence from the defense was the most common cause, based on data from the National Registry of Exonerations. Speaking with NPR, registry director Simon Cole said "Prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct are the most common contributing factors ... And within that, the concealing of evidence," such as what was found to have happened in the Syed case. If a motion to overturn a conviction is successful, prosecutors may also pursue the case again, as FindLaw also notes.