Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reversing Murder Convictions on Appeal: It’s Not Easy

In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has extraordinary power in reviewing first degree murder cases, but don’t count on the Court being very lenient. In 16 Suffolk Journal of Trial and Appellate Advocacy 1 (2011), Stephanie Roberts Hartung has published an interesting empirical study, “The Limits of ‘Extraordinary Power: A Survey of  First-Degree Murder Appeals Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 278, Section 33E”:

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is afforded “extraordinary power” in reviewing first-degree murder convictions on appeal. Yet despite the plenary review established under § 33E - including the right to review the entire trial transcript for errors neither objected to at trial, nor raised on appeal - the survey undertaken in this article concludes that surprisingly few cases are reversed on appeal. This article presents the results of a survey of first-degree murder appeals in Massachusetts from 1998-2008. During that time-frame, just 7.25% of these convictions were reversed on appeal. Additionally, this article discusses the substantive issues giving rise to reversal, and the reversal rate for each issue. Criminal practitioners and scholars can benefit from a practical understanding of the aspects of homicide law which are most likely to support the reversal of a first-degree murder conviction.

The most common reason for reversal is an error in the jury instruction. The second most common is an improper evidentiary ruling by the trial judge. Still, these reversals comprise only a small number of cases.


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