The title of this post is kind of a “no kidding” sentiment. Of course it’s better to win at trial, as opposed to winning on appeal. I mean, if you win at trial, you win. End of story.
But, as this article from today’s Inquirer illustrates, aside from the obvious, it is much better to win at trial because the system is set up to do everything it can to preserve the status quo. The article recounts a story about an unfortunate guy who was, pretty obviously, wrongly convicted of murder, and was so obviously innocent that other inmates got money together to help him fight his appeals. As is common in this type of situation, his trial lawyer apparently did a horrible job, didn’t call alibi witnesses, didn’t contest some very bogus identification evidence, etc., etc.
What the article kind of downplays is maybe the most significant part, though, that, even after getting the help of a retired judge, this poor guy lost all of his appeals. What it illustrates is that you can be the victim of the most egregious injustice, be obviously innocent, and have been completely railroaded, and the appellate courts will do absolutely everything to keep you in jail. This is because the job of an appellate court is to preserve what already happened, unless it feels like it has no choice. That’s the tough part of appellate work as a lawyer, you have to convince the court it has no choice.
What’s the lesson? Be careful in the beginning. I’ve seen lots of people not take their trial seriously enough, because they don’t think they could possibly be convicted, or because they think they can’t afford to fight the case, or maybe just because they think, well I can always appeal. As this case illustrates, it isn’t that easy though.