10.27 Healing Partnership aims to demystify appeal process
10/27 shootingJudge Colville currently weighing motions

10.27 Healing Partnership aims to demystify appeal process

Class offered in preparation of Pittsburgh synagogue shooter's appeal

Professor David Harris. (Photo via law.pitt.edu)
Professor David Harris. (Photo via law.pitt.edu)

While the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s trial concluded more than seven months ago with a death penalty sentence, 10.27 Healing Partnership Executive Director Maggie Feinstein knows there are still related challenges ahead for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Case in point is the start of the appeals process, still in its nascent stages.

“When we’re talking about communal trauma, one of our primary goals is that people are given the opportunity to anticipate what’s coming, predicate how it’s going to land with them and prepare themselves for it, however is appropriate,” Feinstein said.

To help achieve that goal, the 10.27 Healing Partnership recently hosted the “Legal Appeals Process Educational Program” taught by David Harris, the Sally Ann Semenko endowed chair and professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh.

The intent, Feinstein said, is to ensure that people have access to information about the legal system and the appeals process.

“No one should feel as though it’s being talked about around them without an opportunity for understanding it,” she said.

It’s important to demystify the appeals process because it isn’t as well known as the guilt and penalty phases of a trial, which most people have at least seen in movies or television programs, Harris said.

“We know that cases get appealed, and they go into something called an appeals court and some months, or even a year, later something pops out — but we don’t know why it happens, how it happens, what goes on,” he said.

A trial, Harris said, is about facts and the law as applied to those facts. A jury, he explained, listens to the prosecution’s and defense’s versions of a story, and then judges what happened, applying the law as it’s given to them by a judge.

An appeal, Harris explained, doesn’t debate facts, witnesses or exhibits, and features no testimony. It is only about the law and legal questions, which might include the jurisdiction of the court, trial venue, jury selection procedures, the inclusion or exclusion of evidence or pre- and post-trial rulings.

An appeals court does not consider issues like whether a jury should have believed a particular witness or accepted a defendant’s alibi.

“Those are questions of fact and they’re already decided,” Harris explained. “This is not a ‘do-over’ of the trial. There is nothing that we would associate with a trial — it’s just legal issues considered, usually, by a panel of judges.”

During the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter trial, Harris said, the murderer’s defense team was careful to preserve issues for appeal whenever there were significant legal disputes. In fact, he added, there are procedures that had to be followed to make challenges eligible for appeal.

“There are certain things you have to do — you have to object, and it has to be timely,” he said.

And that is often part of a defense team’s strategy, he said, explaining that if there is a guilty verdict the goal is to have the opportunity to appeal on as many issues as possible.

There is no date scheduled yet for the appeal hearing, he said, because Judge Robert Colville, who presided over the trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, has to decide on two motions first: one for a new verdict and another for a new trial.

“At some point in the near future, he’ll rule on that, and the defendant can file an appeal — that’s a one-pager that says, ‘we’re appealing’ — and then the defendant asks for and obtains a full record [of the case],” Harris explained. “That’s a huge job of compiling the transcripts and audio and all kinds of things.”

Once the defense has that information, it can begin the process of briefing the court — in this case the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.

None of this, Harris said, lends itself to a fast process, but it will have an eventual end.

“In a case like this, it will be heard at least three, four, five different times at different levels of the system for different sets of issues and reasons,” he said. “It can end, but we have to anticipate it’s going to take years.”

The process, Harris said, will be frustrating, but necessary.

“This is justice at work,” he said. “We absolutely have to have an appellate process in our justice system. It’s a system created and run by human beings and human beings make errors. This is one of those things where we say, ‘We are a country that values justice’ and, as Jewish people, we revere justice. It’s important. ‘Justice, justice we shall pursue,’ is from Deuteronomy.”

The process, Feinstein said, is about values.

“It’s not about justice for somebody else, it’s about what we value as a society and especially as a Jewish community,” she said.

Feinstein hopes that Harris’ presentation helps people understand the pursuit of justice and to prepare for the days ahead, avoiding times of crisis and minimizing any trauma the appeal might trigger.

“We don’t want there to be a traumatic impact from the ripple effects,” she said. “We want people to not feel caught off guard. We don’t want them to lose agency. At any point, they should feel like they have the opportunity to make whatever decision is right for them because they’re not allowed to do that in moments where it feels like a crisis. We’re trying to prevent these things from being traumatic.”

And if anxiety arises, Feinstein said, people should reach out to helpful resources, like a therapist, JFCS or the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
“If people are feeling overwhelmed, they should know they don’t have to just stay within themselves,” she said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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