The appellant files a brief outlining the background and facts of the case, the issues being raised on appeal, with argument and citations to the law designed to persuade the appellate court that the trial court erred in some harmful way in rulings on the law, procedure, or evidence.
The party who prevailed in the trial court (appellee) files a brief seeking to refute the appellant’s contention and the appellant then files a reply brief attempting to refute the appellee’s position.
The Supreme Court currently receives over eight thousand cert petitions a year from defendants whose convictions have been affirmed by the United States Courts of Appeals or the highest appellate tribunals of the states.
The Supreme Court is able to review only a small percentage of these cases (less than 100; roughly 1%).
These tend to be the most difficult cases involving the most significant legal questions or cases where the lower courts are in conflict.
A person who has been convicted of a crime, has exhausted all normal appellate remedies, and is confined to prison may still challenge his or her conviction, sentence, or conditions of confinement by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Habeas corpus is an ancient common-law device that permits judges to review the legality of someone’s confinement.
In modern American criminal procedure, habeas corpus has become a way for prisoners who have exhausted all other avenues of appeal to attempt to obtain further judicial review.
“ The most far-reaching study of the death penalty in the United States has found that two out of three sentences were overturned on appeal, mostly because of serious errors by incompetent defense lawyers or overzealous police officers and prosecutors who withheld evidence.”
FOX BUTTERFIELD, “Death Sentences Being Overturned in 2 of 3 Appeals.” New York Times, June 12, 2000
“ The study, an examination of appeals in all capital cases from the time the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, in 1976, to 1995, also found that 75 percent of the people whose death sentences were set aside were later given lesser sentences after retrials, in plea bargains or by order of a judge. An additional 7 percent were found not guilty on retrial.”