The Death Penalty Appeals Process

Capital defendants who have been sentenced to the death penalty have a right to appeal the trial court's decision. Some states allow the sentence and the verdict to be appealed separately.

Capital punishment, or the death penalty, has a long history in the United States. Over time, the United States Supreme Court has restricted the use of the death penalty. Likewise, a majority of state governments have abolished it, declared moratoriums on executions, or simply abandoned the practice.

Advocates claim that capital punishment deters violent crime. The research data, however, is mixed. Opponents argue that execution is immoral and argue for life imprisonment.

Despite its decline in usage, people are still sentenced to death and executed in the United States. The modern process is lengthy, and it affords several opportunities for the prisoner to avoid the ultimate punishment.

This article provides an overview of the death penalty appeals process from state to federal courts. It includes information on direct appeals, post-conviction appeals, and the federal habeas corpus process.

Death Sentence Frequency

The number of people sentenced to death in the U.S. in any given year has fallen since its high of 315 in 1996. In 2022, for example, only 21 people were executed.

Of the 8,466 death penalty cases handed down from 1973 to 2013, only 16% of death row inmates, orc1,359, were executed. Many of those sentences were overturned on appeal. Other prisoners were exonerated through DNA analysis.

Appealing a Death Penalty Sentence in State Court

The defense team has a number of steps they can pursue. These include post-trial motions for acquittal, asking for a reduction in the sentence, motions for a mistrial, and requesting a new trial.

If none of these actions result in a change in sentencing, the next step is a direct appeal. A direct appeal is not a new trial. No new evidence can be admitted. The appeals judge is limited to considering only issues from the original trial.

Depending on the state, this first appeal will go to the state appellate court.

If the appellate judge's verdict is unfavorable, the defense team can ask the state's highest court to hear the case. In some states, the highest court is obligated to review every case with a sentence of death. In other states, the highest court is not required to hear the case but can do so at its discretion.

Appealing a Death Penalty Sentence in Federal Court

If all avenues have been exhausted at the state level, the appellant can appeal their case at the federal level. They can file a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court.

Appellants cannot take their cases immediately to the federal courts because the judicial system gives state courts an opportunity to fix any mistakes that they make. Defense teams must raise issues of defective processes or rights violations in state courts. If they fail to do so, they may be prevented from bringing such arguments later in federal proceedings.

If a defendant loses in federal district court, they can petition for a writ of certiorari with the federal appellate court.

Finally, they can petition the U. S. Supreme Court. In Supreme Court cases, the defense is asking for a review of federal constitutional issues. The defense team can also bring up issues outside the trial record, such as:

Because of the multiplicity of proceedings, capital punishment cases can take decades to work their way through the criminal justice system.

Relief can also come from outside the criminal justice system. A prisoner can receive a pardon or clemency from the governor of the convicting state. Some states also empower executive clemency boards or parole boards to delay executions.

The Death Penalty Appeals Process: Additional Resources

Get Legal Help With Your Criminal Case or Appellate Process. Reach Out to a Criminal Law Lawyer

The death penalty appeals process is slow, but it ensures that an appellant is given every opportunity to make their case. If you need legal help with your capital case or criminal appeal, contact a criminal defense attorney.

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