“First we lost and then we won,” described Mr. Spolin. “Our client had initially appealed to the Court of Appeals, which denied the appeal. But I knew we were right, so we didn’t give up.” The appeal was only successful when the firm brought the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the state’s highest criminal court.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is part of the Texas Supreme Court. Because it is the state’s highest court on criminal law topics, the prosecutor will be unable to appeal to any other court. Therefore, the plea deal is permanently overturned.
Winning a case in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is extremely rare. One reason is because of the court’s selectivity. While attorneys file thousands of petitions with the court every year, the Court only chooses to formally review a small number of them. Additionally, even if a case is selected, it is not common for a state inmate to overturn a guilty plea.
“Courts usually say: if you plead guilty then that means you did the crime,” Mr. Spolin noted. “The problem with that argument is that sometimes a defendant might not even know what he is pleading to or he may have been pressured to accept a deal even if he is innocent, all in an attempt to just ‘get it over with’ or because his lawyer told him to accept the deal.”
For this recent win, Spolin Law argued that the client’s guilty plea was invalid for three reasons. First, it was not made in open court. The state rules regarding plea deals establish that the plea must be made on the record in court and cannot be solely through a written form. The second argument was that the client did not fully understand what rights he was giving up when he pled, especially his right to a jury trial. And the third argument was that the change of plea would not “prejudice” the prosecutor or unduly interfere with the court.
These arguments are primarily based on Constitutional law, which requires that any plea deal be “express, intelligent, and voluntary.” Essentially this means that a defendant has to understand the plea itself and understand the rights that he or she is giving up. The “voluntary” element also requires that the defendant be acting of his own free will and not compelled to accept the plea.
The attorneys at Spolin Law had reviewed the record in detail in order to find the three arguments to raise. This proved crucial, as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ended up granting the appeal only based on one of the three arguments. As Judge Kevin Yeary noted in the Court’s September 22nd published decision: “We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in forcing Appellant to submit to a bench trial. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and remand the cause to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
“We found all the errors, and I’m glad we did,” noted Hemi Tann, the assigned Case Manager at Spolin Law. Ms. Tann had helped to coordinate the lawyers, researchers, and other staff who had worked on the case. “Sometimes an appeals firm will get excited when they find a rights violation that can form the basis for an appeal. But in my mind, you need to find literally everything because you never know what the judges will be swayed by.”
Ms. Tann was also in close contact with the client’s family after the firm had won the appeal. “They were beyond happy,” as Ms. Tann recalled. “It had been a long road to get to this point, including first losing in the district court and then the appellate court before the Supreme Court win. I’m glad to have been a part of something so meaningful in their lives.”