Does Innocence Matter on Appeal?
One of the hardest things to explain to clients is that an appeal is not about guilt or innocence – in fact, it is rarely an issue. I don’t know how many times I have heard people say “if they will just look at the case they’ll see he (she) is innocent”. That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. The appeal court does not look for innocence – they assume you are guilty, since that is what the jury decided.
There are rare case though where innocence is clear – or at least there are questions. The case of Megan Winfrey is one of those. Ms. Winfrey and her father – Richard Winfrey, Sr. – were convicted of murdering a high school janitor. A big part of the case was dog scent evidence – which thankfully has been revealed for what is – a bunch of crap. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with that assessment last year, and reversed Mr. Winfrey’s conviction. The State refused to concede and retried Mr. Winfrey – again using dog scent evidence. This time the lawyers did a great job of discrediting the evidence and the jury let the State know what it thought about it – acquitting Mr. Winfrey in thirteen minutes.
You might think that would be good news for Ms. Winfrey – but you would be wrong. Her case was argued before the same court – the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – in April. Six months later there is still no decision – and she is still in jail.
So why s that? I certainly don’t know the answer, but I do know how Court’s operate. Just because they believe the State used junk science – which they would be hard pressed to reverse court and find otherwise – doesn’t mean the conviction is reversed. They still have to decide whether that made a difference – i.e. was it harmless error. The State claims her “suspicious behavior” supports the guilty verdict; always a popular argument when you don’t have any real facts.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to ignore the jury’s finding – if her father didn’t do it, is it reasonable to think she did? Unfortunately, “reasonable” isn’t usually a consideration on appeal. Let’s hope this time it is – and they reverse her conviction soon.