Certainty is one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the criminal justice system. Without some modicum of certainty, disorder would have the capability of diminishing the confidence of the general public that our laws could be applied evenhandedly and fairly to all members of the community.
During the course of discussion with a client as to the nature of one’s appeal rights in the event that our decision to try his case proves unsuccessful, I felt it in order to relay my thoughts as to how laws are actually interpreted and ultimately codified within the state of Indiana as well as all states nationwide.
I am taking this opportunity to discuss these issues due to miscomprehensions among the general public as to how law is ultimately applied; flexibility that can often prove perilous when deciding whether an appellate court may ultimately rule in one’s favor as to interpretation of law in the wake of a trial appeal.
To me a mere discussion of criminal case appeal is fraught with resignation; for to have to discuss the merits of an appeal is to resign oneself to the reality that a trial has been lost. (hopefully temporarily pending an ultimate appellate victory) However, in deciding whether to appeal an adverse decision by a judge or jury, it is incumbent upon an attorney to communicate what a criminal case appeal is, and what it is not.
Too frequently people who have consulted with me as to the merits of an appeal have an incorrect assumption that appealing one’s conviction to a higher court of appeals within Indiana is essentially a “do over.” The appeal process is therefore viewed among many as yet another opportunity to vindicate one’s prior ruling on culpability as a long as the financial price is right to exhaust such legal remedies between client and lawyer.
However, a legal right to an appeal is by no means a “do over,” or in other more modern slang an opportunity to “double dip” the criminal justice system by merely forum shopping to a new legal venue in which to try to, in effect, re litigate a former trial prosecution.
This is so due to the distinction between matters of fact, versus matters of law. As such, it is critical that one accused of a criminal offense in Indiana and elsewhere in America understand this absolutely critical distinction; a distinction that can ultimately play a critical role in deciding whether both the legal and financial risks associated with a case appeal are worthwhile.
When one litigates a case before a trial court, although matters of law dictate what evidence will ultimately become admissible as evidence before a judge or jury, it is the judge or jury who are in the end considered “triers of fact.” This reality is critically important to understand for it underscores the importance of the initial decision of whether a trial is warranted within the applicable state court.
Within the criminal appeal process one of the issues heard over and over and over again is the insistence among appellate courts to reiterate through their decisions that it is the state court where the trial has been held that is the ultimate, “trier of fact.” No matter the state jurisdiction, there is the strong likelihood that an appellate court decision will take pains to express that its role is not to reweigh the factual determinations handed down by the judge or jury within the trial in question.
What does this mean? It means that no matter how illogical a judge or jury’s determination of a factual matter may be, an appellate court will not second guess such a factual determination unless an improper ruling on law allowed for a trier of fact to be impermissibly influenced to a defendant’s detriment. To do otherwise would be to render the right to trial by jury among one’s peers in America insignificant to a later factual determination of judges.
In more succinct terms, an appellate court is not to judge the facts of a given case, but merely to decide whether as a matter of law, the legal procedural process of the trial in question conformed with legal due process of state law. Such matters include, but are certainly not limited to, whether evidence was properly admitted and considered by judge or jury, whether improper evidence or statements of a prosecutor not properly excluded from consideration unfairly influenced a jury and “prejudiced” a defendant’s right to a fair trial, etc.
Further complicating matters for the layperson is the reality that no matter how competent the lawyer, certain legal guidance in regard to how a given appellate court will rule upon interpretation of law can never be forthcoming.
Although state codified legal statutes aim to be clear and specific as to what laws designate, interpretation of these laws in practice can often only be enumerated by the number of Indiana appellate court decisions handed down each year. In so doing, “case law” or interpretation of state laws based upon prior precedent on a specific legal issue is a central focus of appellate attorneys in their quest to influence the ruling of the court toward their respective client’s legal position.
Understanding this important distinction between the role of a trial attorney focused upon issues of fact, as opposed to the role of an appellate court attorney more dedicated to arguing issues of law before a panel of judges, can hopefully be an important guide as to whether the perceived “safety net” of a criminal appeal is truly the best post verdict consideration.