Functions of the Appellate Unit
Whether decided in the Norfolk Superior Court or one of the District Courts, criminal cases often do not end with the verdict at trial. A defendant has the right to appeal his or her convictions to one of the appellate courts of the Commonwealth for a determination of whether the judge, prosecutor, or defense attorney committed certain legal errors or if there are any other reasons that prevented the defendant from receiving a fair trial.
Appeals Following Conviction
The main function of the Appellate Unit is to handle these types of appeals, which are decided by either the Appeals Court of Massachusetts or the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the highest court in the Commonwealth. The Appeals Court decides all post-conviction appeals except those from convictions of first-degree murder - which by statute are automatically heard in the Supreme Judicial Court - and those which the Supreme Judicial Court elects to transfer from the Appeals Court.
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, remand the case for additional findings or resentencing, or in certain cases, enter a judgment for the defendant. Should the Appeals Court affirm the convictions, the defendant may file an application for further appellate review requesting that the Supreme Judicial Court review the case. The Commonwealth may also seek further appellate review in a case decided adversely to the Commonwealth.
Handling an appeal requires the Assistant District Attorney to confer with the prosecutor who conducted the trial; review the arguments in the defendant's brief; research the legal issues those arguments involve; and draft a brief for submission to the appropriate appellate court. The appellate attorney will then argue the case before a three Justice panel, the Appeals Court or the seven Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court.
Appeals During Trial
The Appellate Unit also handles interlocutory appeals, which are filed either by the Commonwealth or by the defendant during the course of a trial. 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 Supreme Judicial Court Justices for a decision. This process can result in delays before trial. In addition, Appellate Unit attorneys may argue in against post conviction motions for a new trial filed by defendants in Superior Court or District Court. These motions involve issues similar to those a defendant might raise on appeal and are often filed years after the convictions they seek to overturn have occurred. Defendants also often file motions to withdraw a plea entered many years earlier. Appellate prosecutors may also handle petitions for stay of execution of sentence, which the defendant files in the Superior Court or one of the appellate courts requesting that he or she by released on bail pending the appeal.
Other Duties of Appellate Unit
Appellate Unit attorneys may also "second seat" trial prosecutors in murder cases or other designated cases. They also coordinate training programs for the legal staff and, where appropriate, the broader law enforcement community. In addition, the Appellate Unit attorneys respond to public records requests and assist trial prosecutors with legal issues that arise during trial.