This is the next post in our series on Arkansas’ criminal appellate process. Our last discussion focused on understanding whether or not an issue may be raised during an appeal. This article will cover the topic of appealing a sentence of death handed down from an Arkansas Trial Court.
Arkansas is a state which imposes the death penalty for certain offenses. If one has been sentenced to the death penalty then an appellate attorney will be appointed to those who do not retain their own counsel. Unlike many other Arkansas appeals, which are first heard by the Court of Appeals, death penalty cases are heard directly by our State Supreme Court. There are no matters in the appellate system taken as seriously as those where one’s life is to be determined.
Death penalty convictions raise additional issues when appealed in Arkansas
There are a number of issues unique to death penalty appeals. These unique issues stem from the fact that capital punishment trials occur in two phases. First, a “guilt phase” occurs at which a jury decides whether the accused actually committed the crime. Guilt or innocence is determined before evidence regarding punishment is heard. Second, assuming the defendant is convicted, a separate “penalty phase” is convened at which the jury determines whether or not the defendant shall receive the death penalty. This two-phase system exists due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona, in which the Supreme Court held that jurors, rather than judges, are to be the ones deciding whether a death sentence is warranted.
The fact that death penalty cases are split into two parts means that additional issues arise on appeal. A common issue is whether evidence, that should have only been allowed in a sentencing phase, was allowed in the guilt phase of a case. Another common issue is whether inflammatory evidence was presented to a jury and the jurors, as a result, issued a death sentence due to personal feelings rather than the facts. How the jury is instructed, by the Judge, is also a common point of contention on appeal. These are just a few of the issues which typically arise in Arkansas death penalty appellate cases.
The death penalty appellate process can be lengthy for those convicted in Arkansas
Arkansas’ appellate process for death penalty cases can drag on for years. This is due to how many steps there can be in the process. First, the initial appellate process can take months or even a year. If the defendant is unsuccessful at that stage then they may file an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, in State Court, against their trial and appellate lawyers. That claim is then often appealed to the Arkansas Appellate Courts. After that process is completed then a Defendant may begin the federal habeas corpus process, which can take many years. These numerous steps for defendants mean that 1) defendants may be on death row for years while going through these steps of the process and 2) defendant’s must understand that there are usually additional steps to take even if a court says “no” at one stage of the process.