Initiating an Alabama criminal conviction appeal can sometimes seem like a long-shot. It may very well be. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing.
Just as is the case in so many criminal trials, it’s often a legal technicality where these cases can be won.
Both Alabama and federal laws hold the actions and procedures of criminal prosecutors, police officers, judges and defense lawyers to a very high standard. If there is evidence that any one of those players deviated even slightly from these standards, there may be a fair shot at winning an appeal and having your conviction overturned. That said, the hurdle for a successful appeal is quite high and often hinges on a matter of law.
A recent case out of the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals focused on the health issues of a judge presiding over a homicide case.
In 2007, the defendant’s 20-year-old daughter was murdered along Alabama Highway 165. The mother is accused of hiring a hit man to fatally shoot her daughter, an alleged drug abuser, because she had allegedly become an emotional and financial burden on the family.
(An appeal from the alleged gunman is pending, as he now says his confession and guilty plea was coerced by police officers who beat him.)
By the fall of 2012, a trial was underway. A jury was seated, witnesses had been called and things were moving along. Then one day, just before further testimony was set to be heard at 9 a.m., the judge abruptly declared a mistrial.
The circuit court judge had received a report that the presiding judge had been seen sleeping during trial.
The judge never confirmed whether this was true, but did say his health was failing. He had blurred vision in one eye, as well as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and gout.
He had previously taken a medical leave from the bench, but doctors had given him the Ok to return. When the circuit judge questioned him about whether he felt 100 percent Ok, he responded, “I never do.”
Still, he thought his health was strong enough that he might be able to withstand a two-week capital murder trial. But midway through, he came to the conclusion that was not the case.
When prosecutors went to try the case again, however, defense lawyers had attempted to argue that it was double jeopardy. The defense lawyers said that because the presiding judge didn’t decide on his own (without the input of the circuit court judge) that his illnesses required a discontinuation of the trial, it raised the question of whether such a move was indeed a “manifest necessity.” If the move was not necessary, they argued, then retrying the defendant would essentially mean double jeopardy.
Ultimately, the appellate court rejected this argument, saying that the mistrial was not declared to protect the interests of any one individual, but rather of a need to protect the rights of all parties – including the immediate medical concerns of the presiding judge.
So it now appears the case will in fact be retried, though the defendant may still seek a re-hearing before the appeals court or could alternatively seek an audience before the Alabama Supreme Court.