What do convicted killer, Drew Peterson, and child molester, Jerry Sandusky, have in common? Both filed appeals this week from their criminal convictions. Each of these felons, facing the rest of their lives in prison, has vowed to fight on to clear their names. So what will the road ahead be for these two bad boys? When I was a fledgling lawyer my dad, my mentor, gave me this sage advice: “Son, if you want to win criminal cases you have to do so at the trial level; convictions are rarely reversed.”
That fact holds true in Connecticut and throughout the country. Every person who believes they have been wrongly convicted holds on to the hope that an appeal will vindicate them. Several years ago an anonymous blogger took the time to survey the results in Connecticut criminal appeals over a two year period. The writer reported that 80% of the 110 appeals during that time period were affirmed.
Connecticut has two levels of appeal: the intermediary level Appellate Court and the Supreme Court. Each is populated by judges appointed to serve solely in those capacities. Most appeals come first to the Appellate Court. Losers at the Appellate level can petition the Supremes for certification. In some instances the Supremes will take a case of significant issues from the Appellate level. Death penalty convictions are directly appealed to the Supreme Court. That Court sits as the ultimate decision maker on issues of state procedure and the state Constitution.
Following a guilty verdict, our rules permit a limited period of time to file motions to set aside the verdict or for judgment of acquittal. These motions are second opportunity to ask the trial judge to correct some perceived error in the trial, and are heard at the time of sentencing. They are rarely granted. Following sentencing there are twenty days to file an appeal. Failure to file the appeal in that time frame renders the trial court’s judgment final. Those who cannot afford an appeals attorney can ask the trial court to extend the appeal period while filing an application of indigency seeking the appointment of a public defender.
Appeals are limited to the issues raised in the trial court, with extremely limited exceptions. Appeals courts do not hear evidence; they are bound by the facts developed in the trial. Rather, they review claimed errors of law in evidentiary rulings or jury instructions by the judge. An appellant can challenge whether the sufficiency of the evidence to justify the conviction. Of all the potential errors claimed on appeal this one is the longest shot at a reversal.
Jury verdicts are given great deference on appeal. An appellate court weighing the sufficiency of evidence must view the facts presented in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict. That said, if the facts at the trial could have lead to two interpretations–one consistent with innocence, and one consistent with guilt– an appeals court must accept the one that upholds the verdict.
When reviewing rulings on evidence an appeals court must defer to the sound discretion of the trial judge, reversing only if there has been a clear abuse of that discretion. In all instances where the appellate tribunal determines there has been error the court then determines whether that error is harmless. In other words, judges may make mistakes but the prime issue is whether that mistake has impacted the overall fairness of the trial. In sum, trying cases and having taken many appeals for nearly 40 years has proven my father right–you have to win at trial or tell the client to pack your toothbrush.