As outlined in last month's newsletter, the first stage of an appeal is within the state courts. If the desired ruling is not granted there, an appellant has the right to pursue action in the federal courts through a Federal Habeas Corpus Petition. The federal courts consist of three levels, in ascending order; the District Courts, US Court of Appeals (California is in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) and the US Supreme Court.
The Federal Habeas Corpus Petition is normally filed in the federal district court where the trial was held. The basis of the federal habeas varies from that of the state habeas. The federal habeas addresses the appellant's claims that the US Constitution has been violated.
To illustrate how a claim within a federal habeas corpus is formulated, let us assume that a prosecutor suppressed evidence that was favorable to a petitioner. The petitioner would claim a violation of their right to Due Process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. As case law authority to this claim they could cite Brady v. Maryland, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1963. A more recent supporting ruling could be Kyles v. Whitley in which the court found that the evidence withheld by the prosecutor "raises a reasonable probability "would have produced a different result"
We have all heard the phrase that someone, "..got off on a technicality." Contrary to this statement, it is quite common for the court to find that the appellant's rights were violated, but also find that the absence of the violation would not have changed the outcome of the trial. The court is able to determine if something falls under harmless error, and therefore eliminates a reversal based on mere technicality. It is only significant issues that overturn convictions.
If the outcome of the federal habeas petition to the District Court is contested it would be appealed to the U.S. Circuit court of Appeals. Any appeal of the decision by this court is to the U.S. Supreme Court, and is referred to as a Writ of Certiorari. A case faces long odds on being heard by the U.S. Supreme court. The court only has time to consider eighty cases a year and one source claims that they have requests from nearly forty-thousand petitioners a year.
Attempt to end the Federal Habeas Corpus Petition
Developed over three hundred years ago in Britain and adopted by our founding Fathers, the habeas corpus petition remains an attempt to guarantee our rights. This fundamental right is under attack. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl is the main sponsor of a bill euphemistically titled "Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005". This bill would restrict the ability of inmates facing execution to appeal to federal courts. It would limit the amount of time that the court could spend on each case, when it is the merits of a case that should determine how long it is considered.
Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold says that the bill could make mistakes commonplace in administering the death penalty. Senator Diane Feinstein has circulated a letter from California Chief Justice Ronald George that asks for more time for senior judges around the country to review the legislation.
Passage of this Senate bill would remove a necessary safeguard. It is only delayed for now. A similar bill is being considered by the judiciary committee in the House of Representatives. We will continue to keep you informed.