Understanding the Federal Death Row Appeal Process

Appeals To Death Row Cases

A man who was convicted and received the death penalty for beheading his three children recently initiated the federal appeal process. The man was previously re-tried in 2010 after an appeals court reversed his conviction and sentence, but he was again convicted of capital murder and still received the death penalty.

A federal public defender who specializes in death penalty appeals filed the most recent petition on the man’s behalf, which asked, among other things, for the court to appoint legal counsel at a nonprofit specializing in death penalty appeals to be appointed as co-counsel. A ruling has not yet been made on this appeal.

In many states that have the death penalty, cases involving a death sentence are different from other types of criminal cases and involve unique interactions with federal prosecutors. As a result, the appeal process for death sentence cases is distinct from other types of criminal appeals. It is critical that a person in these situations obtain the assistance of a skilled criminal defense attorney.

Direct Appeals in Death Sentence Cases

In some states with the death penalty, after conviction, a person can appeal to the state’s court of appeals. If the court of appeals affirms the conviction, a person can seek review by the state’s supreme court, which has discretion in deciding whether or not to hear the case.

In other states with the death penalty, there is not an intermediate review by an appellate court, which means that a case that is appealed from a trial court is heard by the state’s supreme court.

In either situation, a defendant and the prosecution file appellate briefs concerning the issue. The court then hears oral arguments and issues a decision. If a person on death row exhausts these appellate measures, the only option left is to pursue federal court options and appeal to the United States Supreme Court, but the Court reviews only a limited number of capital punishment cases, which means that it is unlikely a person’s case will be heard.

Post-Conviction Proceedings

If the direct appeal process is unsuccessful, a person is still able to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty through a series of petitions in federal courts, which are referred to as post-conviction proceedings. These appeals frequently raise issues that are outside of the trial court’s records, which served as the basis for a direct appeal.

These appeals challenge the basis of a person’s conviction or sentence. Two of the most common reasons for post-conviction appeals are ineffective counsel and misconduct by the prosecution. The Sixth Amendment grants defendants the right to an attorney and the Supreme Court has long held that representation offered by this legal counsel must be effective. Defendants under the Fourteenth Amendment are also granted the right to be provided with due process, which means that a person must have the opportunity to defend him or herself against the charges. If prosecution withholds evidence that would exonerate the defendant or otherwise interferes with the legal process, a defendant has a firm basis on which to argue that prosecutorial misconduct occurred.

Obtain Assistance with Federal Criminal Appeals

At the Federal Criminal Law Center, our legal counsel has helped many people create strong appeals. If you are interested in a federal appeal, contact our law office to schedule an initial free case evaluation.