Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I've been reading a lot of habeas corpus cases for my library job over the past couple of weeks. In the process I've learned that "habeas corpus" is the Latin term for "deliberately wasting everybody's time." Here's how the appeals process works, in dialogue form:

Criminal: Hey, there was some sort of mistake in my trial that means I shouldn't have been convicted (or got too harsh a sentence, or should get a retrial, etc.)
Appeals court: We don't really think that's true, but even if it is, you didn't preserve the issue for appeal by objecting. Since we only review the transcript for procedural mistakes, there's nothing we can do.
Criminal: So I'm out of options?
Appeals court: Well, not quite. You could file a habeas petition, which is kind of a meta-appeal. You say, the issue wasn't preserved for appeal because the prosecutor was crooked or the judge was crooked or because your lawyer screwed up.
Criminal: And then I can get out of my conviction?
Appeals court: Oh, no. We never actually grant these things, and in the rare occasions we do, you just go back to your previous judge, argue there were mistakes, and he says "no there weren't." But you will deliberately waste everyone's time and money, except yours because you're in jail anyway and have a court-appointed lawyer.
Criminal: Sign me up!

And this is in California and New York. I can't imagine how ugly it is in red states.

Reading habeas petitions is also a great way to see massive amounts of human disgustingness on one side (lots of child molesters, double-murderers, and equally savory types) or the other (life sentence for a guy who stole $22) of the law. There's also some wonderful gallows humor, my favorite being the guy charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, and vandalism. Apparently the vandalism really pushed the DA over the line to press charges on that one.

But my summer of doing other people's research will be done soon, and then hopefully I'll be done dealing with the criminal law.

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