U.S. Supreme Court Offers Small Federal Criminal Appeals Exception

The U.S. Supreme Court recently offered a criminal appeals exception in the case Martinez v. Ryan.

The appeals process is one of the most difficult areas of criminal law. Filing a successful appeal of a criminal conviction requires a unique combination of writing skills, legal knowledge and the experience necessary to construct technical legal arguments.

Ineffective trial counsel is one of the main grounds for an appeal. Defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel in criminal proceedings under the rule established in the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case Strickland v. Washington. Ineffective trial counsel can result in the conviction of an innocent person and make it hard for the wrongfully convicted individual to successfully appeal his or her sentence.

In a recent death row case concerning an ineffective trial lawyer, a federal judge noted that there were “disturbing uncertainties” as to whether the defendant actually committed the murder he was convicted of. The judge also noted that the man’s innocence is wholly irrelevant as to whether he gets out of jail.

“Federal law does not recognize actual innocence as a mechanism to overturn an otherwise valid conviction,” the judge wrote in an order denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial.

For defendants who are convicted due to inadequate trial counsel, it is important to hire an effective criminal appeals lawyer. In addition to being a complicated and technical process, an appeal is a high-stakes proceeding because arguments that are not properly raised during an initial appeal are often lost forever.

Supreme Court Allows Ineffective Trial Counsel Arguments in Habeas Proceedings

The U.S. Supreme Court recently made a small exception to the harsh federal rules regarding defaulted arguments in criminal appeals. In the case Martinez v. Ryan, the justices decided that a defendant may be excused for failing to raise the ineffectiveness of his or her trial counsel in later appeals if the defendant’s state post-conviction counsel is also ineffective in raising this argument.

This means that in some circumstances, a defendant can now raise the ineffectiveness of trial counsel for the first time in a federal petition, called a habeas corpus proceeding. Previously, defendants lost the ability to argue that they received ineffective trial counsel if they did not raise the issue in their initial appeal.

The Supreme Court will also allow defendants to raise their ineffective assistance of counsel claims in federal habeas proceedings if a state failed to appoint an appellate attorney for an initial-review collateral proceeding.

An “Equitable” Criminal Appeals Exception

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed that the court was not creating a right to effective post-conviction counsel for defendants. The ruling simply makes a narrow exception that will force lower courts to carefully consider arguments regarding the effective assistance of trial counsel. This exception is therefore an equitable exception, not a constitutional one, meaning that the court will allow these otherwise barred ineffective assistance of counsel claims out of a sense of fairness, not based on any law or constitutional proscription.

Another important factor to note is that all of the other rules governing appeals are still intact. This means that any error at the trial level has to be substantial to support a meritorious appeal. The court reiterated this principle in the Martinez opinion.

“To overcome the default, a prisoner must also demonstrate that the underlying ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim is a substantial one, which is to say that the prisoner must demonstrate that the claim has some merit,” Kennedy wrote.

The default presumption in criminal appeals is that trial counsel rendered effective assistance. That is part of the reason why appeals are so difficult – defendants must show that their trial attorneys committed an objectively substantial error that actually changed the outcome of the trial or otherwise prejudiced the defendant’s rights.

The challenges of bringing a successful appeal are beyond the skills and resources of many law firms. An experienced appellate law firm will use a team of experts to go through the entire criminal record of a trial, including the court transcripts. Effective appellate lawyers will then demonstrate their knowledge of case law to highlight the errors of law that occurred at the trial level and make the strongest possible case for the reversal of a defendant’s conviction.

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