Roadtrip to Appeals Court- 7.02

TP took Susan and I to the appeals court in Pietermaritzburg (PMB, as it is called by the cool kids), which is a city about 45 minutes away on Tuesday. I was particularly invested in this trip because the appeal was a case that I had worked on. This was the same matter I visited prison for. Two men had been arrested for armed robbery. The case had hinged on the issue of two alternate realities, the one given by the complaintant and the one given by the accused. After talking to the accused in prison, we discovered that they had lied in court and therefore the only thing being appealed was the sentence, which was currently the statutory minimum of fifteen years. It was TP’s charge to show “substantial and compelling reasons” why the minimum sentence was not appropriate.

TP described PMB as similar to New Hampshire (from what he’s heard) with a more laid back attitude and a lot of old buildings reminiscent of the colonial period. I didn’t get to spend enough real time there to see if that assessment was fair, but I did see a lot of cool old buildings there. The courthouse was more of what I expect from a courthouse- it was a little more institutional and modern- sort of like a community college building. The courtrooms were dimly lit and all wood and maroon. It lacked the intimidation of the en banc room at the 8th circuit, but was still more intimidating than the magistrate court or even the high court. There were two judges presiding- TP explained the procedure for why there are two judges, but I was somewhat unclear. Susan and I tried to pick a strategic seat in the courtroom so we could actually hear what was going because of the poor acoustics and waited the standard 20-30 minutes for the judges to be late before they start proceedings.

First we got to see three people sworn into the profession, one as a conveyancer and two as attorneys. It was pretty anticlimactic and I hope that getting admitted to the bar is more exciting. I think it will be.

The first matter was an appeal against a drunk driving charge. The attorney was clearly nervous and his case was pretty weak. So apparently the way an appeal works here is that the prevailing attorney does not have to appear in court and only the one asking for the appeal has to appear and argue their case. The judges have already read the brief, and only adjourn to discuss the outcome if their mind has been changed by oral arguments. In this case, the judge went through each of the points the attorney was making and basically trampled them. The machine (presumably something like a breathalyzer) could not be proven to have been calibrated properly. “Well, what about this certificate of calibration that was entered into evidence?” the judge asked. “I submit to you m’lord that there is no evidence that this certificate refers to the same machine,” replied the attorney. “But why would they talk about another machine that has nothing to do with the case. Isn’t the only reasonable inference that they are talking about the machine in question here?” the judge countered. That point was conceded. As was the next one about expert testimony and another one that I couldn’t really hear. Then the judges read their decision without adjourning and denied the appeal. We then had to sit through one of the judges reading all the information from the case into the record (they put everything on the tape recordings and then type up transcripts) at which time I fell asleep for a minute as the judge was really soft-spoken and soothing and I was already familiar with all the information.

The next attorney had a series of cases for which none of the accused was present. Therefore they didn’t proceed. I was somewhat confused about this because our accused was not present but the matter was allowed to proceed so I guess it just depends on the nature of the case. TP was up. I honestly didn’t think he was going to prevail. And it was really hard for me to say that because I worked on this appeal. I looked at the record and tried to find reasons why they shouldn’t have given him the minimum sentence. The best I could come up with was that this was very amateurish and that he clearly wasn’t a threat to the community. Also he worked, has a family to support, and has no record except a charge when he was a child for which he received corporal punishment. Additionally, there was no record of this previous charge and he volunteered the information and went along with the police without any attempt to flee. I personally felt these were compelling reasons but did not see a court agreeing with me. TP argued his case, which did not take very long, the judges looked at each other and then reduced his sentence to 10 years. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think TP could believe it either. It was cool to think that I helped this guy who did something incredibly stupid get 5 years of his life back. Overall, it was a good court experience.

Oh, and on my way to the movies to see Kung Fu Panda, I saw a guy base jump off a beachfront hotel. It was awesome.

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