A mother leaves her seat in the courtroom and approaches the podium. The judge sits back and waits for her statement. As she is about to begin, tears drop from her eyes. “My son is innocent,” she says. “Please show him mercy.”
When a defendant is convicted and then sentenced, after a sentencing hearing, where family members may give statements, it is not the end of the case. Our judicial system provides a right to an appeal. The statutory right to an appeal also includes a right to appointed counsel, if the defendant cannot afford to retain one.
An appeal is limited to the “record.” The record is everything that happened before and after the trial – preliminary, trial, and sentencing hearings. Everything that is said by the prosecution, defense attorney, defendant, and witnesses are recorded. Materials submitted for evidence is also preserved for the record. Indeed, an individual unrelated to the case should be able to see “everything” that happened with a particular criminal case after it has concluded.
A defendant is referred to as the “appellant,” when he or she appeals. The first document submitted is the appellant’s opening brief. The opening brief is the opportunity for the appellant to make his or her arguments about why the conviction should be overturned.
Since arguments are limited to the record, the appellant cannot submit additional evidence nor have new witnesses testify. Put simply, the appellant can only raise legal issues related to the proceedings. Typically, appellants will argue that certain evidence should have been excluded during the trial. Or appellants may argue that there was a constitutional violation committed during the criminal proceedings – the trial judge made an erroneous ruling.
The opening brief will contain case law, statute, and argument. After it has been submitted, the state will have an opportunity to submit an opposition brief. The opposition brief will contain counter arguments about why the trial was fair, and why the conviction should stand. The appellant will get the last word, however. The appellant may file a reply brief.
If the appeal is denied, the appellant may petition for the California Supreme Court to review the court of appeal decision. Most often, the California Supreme Court will deny review unless the legal issues involve split decisions between the appellate courts, or the legal issue is novel and has not been heard before (which is rare).
An appellant, and his family, need not despair should the appellant lose his or her appeal. There exists post-conviction relief outside of an appeal. For centuries, a petition for writ of habeas corpus has existed. Writ of habeas corpus translates roughly to “why are you holding the body?”
A petition for writ of habeas corpus is a petition that allows a defendant to challenge his or her incarceration. Since it is not a direct appeal, new evidence is allowed. More often than not, new evidence will be submitted at the habeas level, like: DNA evidence, new witness statements or recants, and other exculpatory information. Habeas cases have been covered by the media. When an individual is exonerated because of DNA testing, for example, the proceedings are usually habeas related. A petition gives a chance to the defendant to right any wrongs that may have been done.
The same mother who cried now sits down in a more comfortable setting. Although her son is confined in a prison hundreds of miles away, she has some hope, even if small. An attorney approaches her and extends his hand. “How can we help you today?”
Our office welcomes your inquiries about post-conviction relief. Please remember that this blog contains no guarantees, assurances, or legal advice. If you have any questions, it is best to contact an attorney by phone. After a conviction , the burden shifts to the convicted.