Laws that describe various crimes may be set out in both state statutes as well as federal statutes. Generally crimes that are “local” in nature such as burglary, assault, rape and murder are state law crimes, whereas interstate drug trafficking, organized crime and crimes that occur in multiple states are federal crimes. Sometimes, a defendant can be prosecuted by both a state prosecutor (i.e. the district attorney) and a federal prosecutor (the United States Attorney).
When a defendant is convicted of a state law crime such as murder, he will generally file an appeal to a state appeals court. Appeals generally involve supposed errors of law – the defendant may contend that certain evidence was improperly admitted or that the jury instructions were wrong. Except in rare instances the appeals court will not reverse a conviction based on the judge or jury’s evaluation of the evidence. In other words, an appeal of a criminal conviction is not a new trial – the defendant must convince the appeals court that the trial court made significant errors that could have changed the outcome.
If a defendant loses his state court appeals and does nothing further, the state will enforce its penalty by leaving the defendant in prison, or in capital cases, by executing the defendant.
Because “death penalty” cases involve the ultimate penalty, capital defendants have a second layer of appeal available to them under a concept called “habeas corpus,” which allows a federal court (and federal appeals courts, up to and including the United States Supreme Court) to consider issues involved in the state court trial or subsequent appeal as Constitutional matters. The “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees all citizens fundamental fairness and justice in all criminal prosecutions, and the federal court can review the decisions of the state trial and appeal courts even in cases not involving federal criminal law.
Successful habeas corpus appeals are rare. Federal judges have the power to decide which cases they will consider – thus there is no guarantee that the federal courts will accept a case for review. The further along the appeal process a case travels, the less likely that it will be heard, much less be decided in the defendant’s favor. Very, very few cases end up before the United States Supreme Court – only cases involving important legal issues with far reaching consequences will be accepted by the Supreme Court for review.
One such case that has made it through both state appeals procedures and federal appeals procedures all the way to the United States Supreme Court is the case of Wellons v. Hall, the case involving the chocolate penis.
Defendant Wellons was convicted by a Cobb County jury of the rape and murder of a 15 year old girl named India Roberts. Because of the vile and horrible nature of the crime, the jury sentenced defendant Wellons to death for the murder and life in prison for the rape. [Read more...]