The Appellate Unit is responsible for handling all appeals and related matters. The Unit is staffed by three experienced Assistant District Attorneys who represent the NWDA before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Unit staff also handle motions for new trial; support all Assistant District Attorneys through legal updates and advice; and participate in parole hearings for those serving life sentences but who are eligible for parole.
Review of legal proceedings dates back to the advent of recorded history with the Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.), which provided that, “If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment.”
Nearly 4,000 years later, the review of legal proceedings remains a critical part of the criminal-justice system.
Whether decided in the Hampshire or Franklin Superior Court or one of the district courts, criminal cases often do not end with the verdict. A defendant has the right to appeal his or her convictions to one of the Commonwealth’s appellate courts for a determination of whether sufficient evidence supported his or her convictions or whether a legal error prevented the defendant from receiving a fair trial.
The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office has an experienced appellate division to litigate post-conviction appeals. And there are also situations when the Commonwealth itself can pursue an appeal.
Appeals Following Conviction
The main function of the Appellate Unit is to handle these types of appeals, which are heard by either the Supreme Judicial Court – the highest court in the Commonwealth (and the oldest court of continuing jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere) – or the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The SJC decides all cases involving first-degree murder convictions and any other case that it elects to transfer from the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court decides all other appeals.
Should the appropriate appellate court determine that the defendant did not receive a fair trial, it may vacate the convictions and order a new trial or, in certain cases, reduce the verdict or enter a judgment for the defendant. If the Appeals Court affirms the convictions, the defendant may file an application for further appellate review requesting that the Supreme Judicial Court review the case.
Handling an appeal requires the appellate ADA to confer with the prosecutor who conducted the trial; review the arguments contained in the defendant's brief; research the various legal issues that those arguments involve; and draft a brief for submission to the appropriate appellate court. The appellate attorney will then argue the case before the seven Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court or a three-judge panel of the Appeals Court. The appellate court will usually render a written decision on the appeal within 130 days of the oral argument.
Appeals Before or During Trial
The Appellate Unit also handles interlocutory appeals, which are filed either by the Commonwealth or by the defendant before or during the course of a trial rather than following conviction. The appealing party first presents the appeal to one of the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, who decides whether to deny the request or to grant the appeal and transfer the case to the Appeals Court or to the full panel of the Supreme Judicial Court for a decision. For example, if a judge suppresses (i.e., rules inadmissible) certain evidence before trial, the Commonwealth can seek to have that determination reviewed by a higher court.
Motions for a New Trial
In addition, Appellate Unit attorneys often argue in opposition to post-conviction motions for a new trial filed by defendants. These motions involve issues similar to those a defendant might raise on appeal and may be filed years after the trial. If a judge grants a defendant’s motion for a new trial, the Commonwealth has an automatic right to appeal that determination.
If a defendant is unsuccessful in appealing his convictions in the Commonwealth’s appellate courts, the defendant may seek to have his case reviewed directly by the United States Supreme Court or may ask that a federal district-court judge in Springfield consider the case. Once the defendant chooses to take a federal route, the Massachusetts Attorney General takes over the case.