Why Do Courts Try Defendants In New Cases When They’re Already Serving Life?

By now, it's hit pretty much every news feed and newspaper out there: former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, already sentenced to life in prison for the murder of one man, was just acquitted of the murder of two Boston men and witness intimidation of a third. Hernandez reportedly wept at the verdict, although that doesn't change his current incarceration. Many people may wonder why an acquittal in the Boston trial makes such a difference to Hernandez -- and why prosecutors went to the trouble and expense in the first place of holding a trial when the defendant is already serving life.

It's all about the appeal rights.

Unless a defendant gives up his rights to appeal his case by pleading guilty or accepting a plea bargain (which has the same legal effect as a guilty plea), there's usually an appeal on any serious criminal convictions. In some states, the defendant (or his or her attorneys) has to submit the appeal in order for the justness of the conviction to be considered. In Massachusetts, all convictions for first-degree murder are automatically reviewed by the state's Supreme Court.

That means that, although it could take years and the possibility is fairly slim, the convicted former NFL player could eventually see his original case overturned.

What happens when a higher court overturns a verdict?

When a higher court looks at a verdict, the case isn't given a new trial in front of the appellate court -- instead, the appeals court will review all of the trial transcripts, pleadings, motions, and conversations with the judge. It will also read briefs, which are written legal pleadings, from the defendant's attorneys. These briefs spell out exactly why the attorneys feel that the lower court erred.

The appeal isn't about retrying the case -- defense attorneys don't get a second bite at the apple -- instead, they have to make their case that there was some procedural error that was committed along the way to which they objected but were overruled. For example, a specific expert witness may have been allowed to testify over the defense's objections that he or she wasn't really qualified to be considered an expert. Or, maybe the judge made a mistake when he or she gave the jury instructions before they were allowed to deliberate.

For the prosecution in the latest Hernandez case, the trial represented two things: the state's desire to punish someone for the death of another person and the desire to make sure that if an appeal is successful in the first case that the defendant doesn't go free. It's important to note that even if the appeal on the earlier Hernandez case is successful, it could simply mean that the appeals court remands the case back for a new trial, rather than overturning the conviction entirely. 

For more information on how the criminal trial process works or to discuss a specific case, speak to an attorney today. Click here to investigate more on the topic.