Successful Death Penalty Appeals

According to a study of every person who received a death sentence since 1973, the most likely outcome for individuals facing this sentence is avoiding execution, often by having the death sentence overturned. More specifically, from 1973 to 2013, 8,466 death sentences were made by the United States Courts. Only 1,359 individuals were executed. 3,194 individuals were able to successfully use the appeal process to overturn a death sentence. Creating a successful death penalty appeal, however, requires an understanding of a number of complex issues and the help of a skilled death sentence appeals attorney. 

Understand Your Available Options

There are several available avenues to navigating death penalty appeals, in both state and federal courts. Some of the available options include:

  • Direct appeal. This appeal process involves a review of a person’s case by the state’s highest criminal court. State courts in this situation will review what occurred at trial. If the state court decides to deny relief, the United States Supreme Court has the option of either declining to review the decision or upholding the decision. During an appeal, a person is limited to raising issues that were introduced at trial. If a person fails to raise an issue at trial, he or she will not be able to raise that argument on appeal. Some of the most common issues that are raised on appeal include rulings by trial courts concerning the use of evidence, decisions that were made on pre-trial motions, jury composition issues, instructions given to juries, and claims that the prosecution’s arguments were inappropriate and unfair. 
  • Post-conviction appeals. A person who receives a death sentence is also able to the challenge of the constitutionality of this decision by petitioning both state and federal courts. Rather than challenge earlier court decisions, these appeals test the constitutionality of a death sentence. Two of the most common claims of this nature involve ineffective assistance of counsel and misconduct by the prosecution.
  • Habeas corpus. Post-conviction proceedings are sometimes referred to as habeas corpus proceedings. Latin for “you have the body,” a habeas corpus petition involves asking for justification for a person’s continued imprisonment. Some of the most common types of habeas corpus include juror misconduct, newly discovered evidence that exonerates a person, failure by the prosecution to turn over evidence of innocence, and ineffective assistance of counsel.  
  • Clemency. A person who is denied relief throughout the judicial process can still be spared through an act of clemency, which must be made by the executive branch. As a result of clemency, a death sentence can be reduced to a life sentence, or occasionally, a person can be pardoned altogether.

How the Supreme Court Interprets Death Penalty Appeals

Over the years, there have been a number of substantial Supreme Court cases that have influenced exactly how the death penalty is treated. Some of the decisions include:

  • Death penalty does not apply to rape cases. In the case of Coker v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in rape cases.
  • No death sentence for all aggravated murders. In the 1978 case of Lockett v. Ohio, the Supreme Court struck down a state statute that required all individuals found guilty of aggravated murder to be sentenced to death. Instead, the Supreme Court held that courts are required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment to consider mitigating factors in capital cases.
  • Racial disparities are okay. In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court found that racial disparities do not constitute a violation of the constitutional right of “equal protection of the law.”
  • No execution of the mentally insane. The Supreme Court in the case of Ford v. Wainwright prohibited the execution of the mentally insane as part of a death sentence.
  • Death sentence availability for non-murder cases. In the 1987 case of Tison v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that defendants can be executed even if they did not kill anyone.
  • Juries determine death sentence eligibility. The Supreme Court in the case of Ring v. Arizona held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires that juries instead of judges determine all the factors that must be found before a person is declared eligible for a death sentence.
  • No execution of the mentally retarded. In the case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that executing mentally retarded constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
  • No execution of individuals under 18. The Supreme Court in the case of Roper v. Simmons case held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment prohibit the execution of individuals who were under the age of 18 years old at the time the offense was committed.

Common Arguments Against the Death Penalty

In addition to mistakes that are made during a trial, there are several other arguments that can be raised in response to the death penalty. Some of these arguments include the following:

  • There is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than imprisonment. Many murders are committed as a result of passion, alcohol, drugs, or mental illness. Currently, 37 states offer juries the ability to sentence defendants to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole rather than the death penalty.
  • Arbitrariness and discrimination are still widespread in issues involving the death sentence. In many cases, people with lower incomes are not likely to retain an experienced team who can help avoid the death sentence. Studies have also found that racial disparities are common when the death penalty. Individuals who murder Caucasians are much more likely to receive a death sentence.
  • The death penalty often constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” There are a number of cases involved botched executions. While lethal injection is currently the most common method of capital punishment, there are cases in which improper administration of the procedure has resulted in undesirable results.

Speak with an Experienced Criminal Appellate Lawyer

Receiving a death sentence can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, an experienced criminal defense attorney understands how these charges are made and can help you navigate this complex process. Contact the Federal Criminal Law Center today to schedule a free case evaluation