Overturning a Criminal Conviction Requires Skilled Defense LawyersExperienced criminal defense lawyers understand even when the defense lawyer asserts every argument possible in the strongest way possible, that a jury may decide against the client, perhaps because the prosecutor didn’t follow the rules of fair play or because the judge made decisions that were legally wrong. Our Sevierville defense lawyers file appeals of federal and state court decisions when justified and necessary to overturn an improper verdict.

What are the common reasons for an appeal of a criminal conviction?

There are very specific rules and procedures for appealing a conviction of a state or federal case in Tennessee. Defendants should seek the help of experienced counsel who understand the time limits, the grounds for the appeal, the evidence necessary, and the resources available to hire investigators and conduct the many other inquiries necessary to support the grounds for an appeal.

Even if an appeal is unsuccessful, a convicted defendant may collaterally attach a judgment. Tennessee Rule 28 provides rules for post-conviction procedures. Some of the common grounds for filing an appeal or a post-conviction procedure include:

  • The trial judge improperly excluded evidence that was exculpatory, meaning it could have helped to show a defendant’s innocence
  • The trial judge admitted evidence that should have been excluded
  • The evidence wasn’t sufficient to prove guilty by a reasonable doubt
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel
  • Prosecutorial misconduct
  • Jury misconduct
  • Sentencing errors

Generally, new evidence that helps exonerate a defendant may be submitted if certain conditions apply, including evidence that is truly new. The evidence can’t be any that was available at the time of the trial. Our skilled Sevierville criminal defense lawyers understand what evidence is required, when it can be presented, and how to present it.

We also understand the many other conditions that govern appeals. We also understand the different appeal requirements for state cases as compared to federal cases.

An example of what type of case justifies a post-conviction petition

The Tennesseean reported on November 29, 2022, that the first medical examiner for Metropolitan Davidson County misidentified two inmates who died in a car accident. He sent their remains to the wrong families. Another man in Tennessee was once pulled over, alive, two years after the examiner, Charles Harlan, had identified him as a burned and dead corpse. After identifying all of these past mistakes, Harlan’s previous court testimony, which helped to send several people to prison for most of their lives, has raised concerns about the cases where he was a key witness.

Harlan, who died in 2013, was deprived of his license in 2005 and hadn’t worked as a medical examiner since 1995. After being terminated in 1995, however, Harlan still, at the request of prosecutors in Tennessee, performed numerous autopsies.

One person, Wayne Burgess, convicted of killing his girlfriend’s child nearly 30 years ago, has filed to get his conviction overturned based on Harlan’s conclusions. Burgess was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s young child almost three decades ago, years after Harlan’s errors began to be uncovered. Burgess’ case is very similar to another case that relied on Harlan’s medical analysis and resulted in a Nashville couple being exonerated.

Burgess’ case is a prime indicator of just how hard it is to overturn a conviction. The Tennesseean stated that while the tendency is to think court reviews of cases like Burgess’ would be straightforward, there are many obstacles. Marissa Bluestine, a former Innocence Project defense attorney turned conviction review expert said that in the past, there weren’t database or centralized information intakes. She added that laws requiring new evidence showing that the original conviction was in error are not standardized and often lack the strength needed to obtain justice.

Prosecutors have a duty under Tennessee law to serve justice when new evidence shows errors in the original conviction, but the rule lacks teeth and reviews aren’t standardized.

In Burgess’ case, a one-year-old child died as a result of a blow that caused internal injuries. Once Harlan pointed the finger at Burgess, the police failed to investigate other events and people that could have caused the child’s death. Dr. Adele M. Lewis, Tennessee’s current chief medical examiner, stated that “it is more likely that the child sustained the lethal injury hours or even days before presentation to the hospital” instead of the time frame that involved Burgess. The mother’s version of the events changed over time. Burgess had signed a confession that had many flaws, including an admission by the police that they “threatened Burgess with violence if he didn’t sign the confession.” Burgess had unsuccessfully tried to appeal on his own.

How does a Sevierville appeal work?

The steps to obtain a court review of a conviction, according to Bluestine, who is now an assistant director for a University of Pennsylvania Law School organization that reviews conviction standards, include:

  • A direct appeal. A direct appeal can normally take years and “focuses on whether the original trial was conducted properly — not whether evidence of innocence was missed.”
  • A post-conviction petition. This criminal procedure is used for different reasons, including a claim of ineffective counsel – such as the failure of the defendant’s lawyer to “follow up on important evidence or present a clear medical picture.” According to Jessica Van Dyke, executive director and lead counsel at the Tennessee Innocence Project, “there’s no constitutional mandate that an attorney be appointed at the post-conviction level.”

Common problems with appeals and post-conviction petitions are the strict time limits; lack of funds for medical experts, experts, and other resources; and the desire of the trial judges to protect convictions (especially if a jury made the decision). Generally, the will of legislative and gubernatorial commissions to act are minimal.

Currently, Burgess’ case hasn’t been decided. Burgess and the judge are waiting to see if local prosecutors will support or oppose Burgess’ new request for a court review.

When cases are decided incorrectly, there are two victims – the victim of the crime, and the defendant who is wrongfully convicted.

At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, our criminal defense lawyers help defendants through every phase of the criminal process – from the arrest through the suppression motions to the trial and appeal. We work to preserve the trial record and to examine any possible flaws in the trial when considering the best arguments for an appeal. To discuss how to file an appeal of a criminal conviction, call us or fill out our contact form to arrange a free consultation. We represent individuals in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and the surrounding Tennessee areas.