Friday, March 07, 2008

The Appeal Process

Contrary to the belief of many, a legal appeal is not a do-over or a repetition of the trial. Rather, it is an avenue for reviewing the procedures used by the trial court to determine if the trial was fair. To make its decision, the Court of Appeals reviews the official record of the trial in light of existing legislation and decisions made in previous cases. The purpose for this review is to ensure that the trial was fair. A more formal legal term for fairness is “due process.”

The legal briefs in Todd's case flesh out the bare outline that follows, but here in briefest summation are the three questions of fairness that they raise:

  1. Is it fair for the state to use altered evidence to gain a conviction? In this case, the altered evidence is the knife which the state alleged to be the murder weapon. There is no dispute that the knife’s condition changed while it was in police custody. When the police first examined it, they saw black debris on it but no blood; later at the state crime lab, a minute amount of blood was found on the knife, but the black debris was gone. The trial court judge decided on technical grounds to permit the knife’s use as evidence anyway.
  2. Is it fair for the trial court judge to restrict the defense from having a full theory-of-defense instruction for the jury? Despite the fact that the knife’s condition had been altered, the defense was not permitted to include in its theory-of-defense instruction a theory of how the blood might have been deposited on the knife.
  3. Is it fair for the prosecution to usurp the jurors’ responsibility to be the sole arbiters of the truthfulness of witnesses? During closing arguments the prosecuting attorney vouched for the honesty of Brad Orgill—the only person seen fighting with the victim and who was covered in the victim’s blood. The prosecutor also asserted that the defense attorney had lied in his summation. The trial court judge failed to instruct the jury to disregard this emotionally charged accusation.

Should the court find that any of these issues causes doubt in the integrity of the verdict, they will have to find a remedy for the unfairness. They may direct a new trial that could include certain sanctions, or they may order a dismissal.

For more about the appeal, including links to the legal briefs, click here.

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