Boston’s Supreme Judicial Court has released a ruling in the case of a woman who had been convicted of murder.

The case dates back to 2003. Solange Anestal (hereinafter, the “Defendant”) was accused of plunging a 16-inch piece of glass into her boyfriend’s chest, causing his death. It happened in their Brockton apartment.

The defense was not that the Defendant did not do the stabbing but that she was temporarily insane when she did it. The jury rejected the defense and found her guilty. Accordingly, the court, the Honorable Superior Court Justice Richard Chin sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2007. That is the sentence in cases of Murder in the First Degree.

The Defendant appealed the conviction. Finally, today, the SJC has reversed the conviction and sent the case back to Superior Court for a new trial.

The basis for the reversal was that the court had improperly allowed the prosecution to introduce “highly prejudicial evidence” against the Defendant, including that the state had taken away her two children – a 6-year-old boy and an infant daughter – days before the killing.

The court also ruled that the judge made a mistake by not instructing jurors “as to the excessive use of force in self-defense that was supported by the evidence.”

Attorney Sam’s Take On Appeals And Reversals In Criminal Cases

Unlike in the case of civil trials, criminal trials can only be appealed by one side…the defense. There is no right of appeal given to the prosecution should the jury return a verdict of “Not Guilty”.

However, an appeal is not simply a motion for a new trial because the jury got it wrong. Appeals must be centered on issues of law. More specifically, the claim is that the defendant did not receive a fair trial because the judge made a mistake that was so prejudicial that it caused “harmful error”. In other words, the mistake really made a difference in the jury’s verdict.

“Is there any time you can appeal saying that the jury got it wrong?”

You can argue on the basis that, as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could have found the way the particular jury did. However, that argument is a real long-shot. A great deal of deference is given to both the jury and the trial judge by the appeals courts because they were actually at the trial and so had the best opportunity to consider the witnesses and the evidence.

In the Defendant’s case, the SJC apparently found that evidence of what the prosecution considered “prior bad acts” were so prejudicial that they should not have been told to the jury.

“Why shouldn’t the jury know about prior things that the Defendant did?”

That is a question that can lead to some lengthy debate. The bottom line is that, under our rules of evidence is precluded from the trial because it is believed it is much more prejudicial than probative. That is apparently what happened here. The Commonwealth was allowed to put into evidence facts like the Defendant’s loss of her children days before the killing.

The evidentiary rules about prior bad acts and such things can be fairly complicated. A balancing test usually must be applied between the prejudicial nature and the probative value. Usually, such things are considered irrelevant and very prejudicial. However, the law does specifically allow such evidence if it is being admitted to show things like motive, opportunity or a specific pattern of conduct.

Likewise, a judge is called upon throughout a trial to give special instructions to jurors as to how they may consider certain evidence. Some pieces of evidence can only be considered for a specific limited purpose and not to decide actual guilt of the crime charged.

Whether the jury actually accepts such instructions is another matter. We like to believe that they do. In my experience, they usually try at least.

In any event, the failure of the trial judge to give a specific charge was another reason why the court reversed the conviction.

Actually, the court did not reverse the verdict. In other words, it did not change the verdict from “guilty” to “not guilty”. Instead, it took away the conviction and sent the matter back to be re-tried in accordance with its rulings.

As you can see, an appeal can be just as important as an actual trial. Therefore, the right to appeal is not to be tossed aside without thought. Likewise, if one is going to appeal, one should retain an attorney who is experienced in doing criminal appeals. Otherwise, the attorney is likely to miss various potential arguments and/or the most effective ways to present them.

Happy election day! Good luck to Mssrs. Obama and Romney! Well, a little more luck to one side than the other…!

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