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Falling into the jurisdiction of the federal courts can be taxing in more ways than one. Yet, the battle for your freedom and reclaiming your socio-economic status is not over once you are convicted. The majority of federal cases (approximately 97 percent) end with a negotiated plea bargain that forgoes the risks of losing at trial for the certainty of a defined release date range. This may leave very few issues left for appeal. In fact, most prisoners don’t take a direct appeal unless there were aspects of discretion in the sentencing after an open plea that were unfair and open to debate.
In a federal criminal prosecution, the direct appeal is what follows trial and/or sentencing if it is pursued at all. In order to have grounds for a direct appeal, the defendant must have non-frivolous issues that would entitle them to relief related directly to the trial, sentencing, or other pre-trial matters. Nevertheless, if the trial attorney did not preserve these issues with a motion for reconsideration, various pretrial motions, or objections at trial, the issues require something called collateral relief proceedings before an appellate court can review them.
Collateral relief is a type of appellate process that is mixed with trial procedures to call witnesses, present evidence, make legal arguments, and testify. In the federal courts, collateral relief comes in the form of federal habeas corpus proceedings under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. This is not to be confused with 28 U.S.C. § 2254 that applies only to state prisoners seeking a final level of review.
The habeas court is a continuation of the trial process but without the jury. The drawback of these proceedings is a lack of public attention and participation. This means that injustices can be committed behind closed doors and occur fairly regularly. Since judges are not held to any defined opinion writing standards, they can skip key arguments and make the evidence of your innocence disappear without even a discussion.
Generally, the habeas court will not consider any evidence unless there was some reason why it was not presented before at trial. In exceptional cases, the judge may allow evidence to be presented if the attorney cannot come up with a reason why he did not present evidence of an alibi or even issues that would have mitigated the sentencing. Although trial attorneys are given broad discretion regarding strategy, they cannot justify every error with an excuse.
Arguing that your trial counsel failed to present key evidence or had failed to consider critical elements of the law that would have lowered or avoided your plea and/or punishment are often pursued in habeas proceedings.
Once the U.S. District Court has ruled on a petition, the prisoner may be able to appeal it if they were granted a certificate of appealability (COA). The COA is the only way that the habeas corpus proceedings can be reviewed. And since the trial judge has an interest in maintaining his judgment, more often than not he will not issue one absent political pressure by the public force of the claims and financial capacity of the defendants. The defendants can seek a COA from the U.S. Supreme Court or the U.S. Court of Appeals in their circuit directly. However, these are rarely granted.
The bottlenecks and inability to obtain appellate review may be one reason why federal prisoners are more likely to plea bargain than state prisoners. The other reason may be the seriousness of the offenses and penalties that compel defendants to take a safe road rather than gambling in an arena that is hard to navigate. Acquiring competent counsel and wrestling with state officials who have a win-at-all-costs mentality can take a psychological toll on wrongfully convicted prisoners. For these reasons, the federal court system is in need of better checks and balances to ensure justice.