The nine attorneys in the Office’s Appeals Unit might fairly be considered “in-house counsel” within the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. These attorneys are regularly called upon to provide legal expertise and case law and to present legal arguments before, during, and after trial. In addition, Appeals attorneys frequently oppose and litigate defense attempts to dismiss a criminal prosecution for alleged constitutional violations, such as claims that the defense has been denied a speedy trial.
Following a successful prosecution by either trial or guilty plea, the Appeals Unit works to preserve each conviction by litigating evidentiary and legal challenges in motions for new trial, motions to withdraw pleas, motions to reduce or modify sentences, habeas corpus petitions, and various other post-trial proceedings. In 2011, the Appeals Unit successfully defended 95% of challenges brought by convicted criminals at the motion for new trial stage. Appeals attorneys also represent the State’s interests in annual court reviews of the placements of defendants found incompetent to stand trial or criminally insane.
The Appeals Unit represents the State of Georgia through the appellate process in the Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals and sometimes in the federal judicial system by writing and responding to complex legal briefs and presenting oral arguments to the judges and Justices of the State’s appellate courts. In recent cases, Appeals Unit attorneys have obtained a significant Georgia Supreme Court opinion fine-tuning proper constitutional speedy trial analysis, secured reconsideration and a strongly pro-prosecution substitute opinion in a Court of Appeals case interpreting the Gang Act, litigated the application of “plain error review” of jury charges, and established that a trial court may not exclude the State’s evidence on legal grounds without permitting the State an evidentiary hearing and may not exclude evidence as a sanction without a showing of bad faith by the State and prejudice to the defense. These attorneys also secured a strong opinion re-emphasizing the appropriately difficult burden of proof placed on a defendant claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, confirmed that a felony murder conviction can be based on the underlying felony of engaging in a drug deal, and verified strict recidivist sentencing requirements for armed robbers. In 2011, the Appeals Unit litigated over 90 cases in the appellate courts and successfully defended 90% of murder convictions being challenged on appeal.
It is also possible for the State to appeal certain trial court rulings and outcomes, and in such cases, the attorneys of the Appeals Unit pursue justice in the State’s appellate courts to protect the rights of victims and citizens and to correct trial court error. Despite the deference typically granted to trial court rulings, the Appeals Unit was able to claim success in 75% of the appeals that it brought on the State’s behalf in 2011.
Appellate attorneys are also closely involved with the prosecution of death penalty cases, staffing an appellate attorney team member for all pending death penalty cases from the outset of each capital case. An Appeals Unit attorney attends virtually every court session and prepares and files most motions and responses during the course of the case and attends the entirety of the trial, providing expertise and oversight to ensure compliance with Georgia’s death penalty statute. Post-trial, the Appeals Unit attorney assumes primary responsibility for the death penalty case, opposing defense attacks on the conviction and sentence in the trial court at the motion for new trial and on direct appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.
The Appeals Unit also manages a host of other prosecutorial duties, including proposing and monitoring legislative initiatives, processing Open Records requests and expungement petitions, overseeing bond validations, and litigating asset forfeitures. In addition, the student intern program, from which future prosecutors can be trained and drawn, is coordinated through the Appeals Unit.