Researcher Examines Michigan Indigent Criminal Appellate Process from Perspective of Attorneys, Clients and Judges

In a report released September 2015, “Narratives of Post-Conviction Public Defense:  How Attorneys, Clients, and Judges Experience the Indigent Criminal Appellate Process,” Jonah Siegel, PhD Social Work Resident at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, examined Michigan’s indigent appellate defense legal landscape using a variety of methodological approaches to explore the personal journeys of stakeholders in the appellate system.

From the report’s Executive Summary:

Using a combination of site observation, focus groups, individual in-depth interviews, and written prompts, researchers examine how public defenders, clients, and appellate judges conceptualize and experience the appellate process. By weaving together their stories, the project illuminates the complex and nuanced nature of appealing a criminal conviction.

The project’s findings are organized chronologically under the following eight subheadings: trial court conviction, initiating an appeal, first appellate steps, communication and expectation management, trial court strategy, appealing to the Court of Appeals, client-centered representation, and the personal journeys of SADO defenders.

Several prominent themes surfaced repeatedly throughout the course of the research:

    Appellate clients experience trial court proceedings as traumatic events that determine their legal case outcomes while causing significant emotional distress.

    Clients have little agency in the trial court process, and for most clients, confusion and lack of control continue throughout the appellate process.

    Attorneys’ efforts rarely meet client expectations, with clients feeling lost, alone, and uninformed as they wait for their appeals to be heard.

    Attorneys are overwhelmed by systemic resource shortages and administrative setbacks that dictate caseload management and potentially impact case outcomes.

    Legal strategies differ across court jurisdictions and also across individual attorneys.

    Attorneys, clients, and judges hold widely varying perspectives on the purpose of the appeal as well as on the potential for legal relief.

    SADO defenders engage in a wide range of self-care practices to sustain their work as public counsel.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations pertaining to trial court proceedings, the attorney-client relationship, case management, information sharing, database development, and public defender training.

Read the full report here.

The State Appellate Defender Office is thankful to Mr. Siegel for the time and effort spent to produce this eye-opening report. SADO is in the beginning stages of implementing new and amended policies and procedures to address some of the areas identified in the report, with the ultimate goal being to better serve our clients and to improve the quality of indigent defense representation in the State of Michigan.