Next Steps for Convicted Vanderbilt Students

At 4:52pm on January 27, 2015, Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg were convicted for the rape of a female Vanderbilt student in June of 2013. The case has been under heavy public scrutiny since it was announced, and after a trial lasting 12 days it took the jury all of (I don’t know how long it took but it was several hours) minutes to reach a verdict of guilty on all charges.

The sentencing is set for March 6, 2015. In Tennessee, the judge decides the punishment for each of the convicting offenses – unless the State is seeking life without parole or the death penalty – and by some totals, Batey and Vandenburg could face decades in prison, even if their sentencing runs concurrently instead of consecutively.

After the sentencing, however, the defendants can begin the appeals process. Everyone who is convicted of a crime at trial, in Tennessee,has an absolute right to have the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals review their convictions.

How the appeals process works

The first step in the appeals process is the filing of the Motion for New Trial, Motion for a Judgment of Acquital and/or a Motion in Arrest of Judgment. If everything in the Vanderbilt rape case goes as planned, the first step must be completed within 30 days of March 6th or when the Judge signs and the clerk of court files the Judgments of convition affixing the sentence.

The second step is to have oral argument in front of the trial judge asserting the errors made during the pre-trial motions, trial, and post trial motions to allow the trial court to correct those errors or to grant a new trial.   Should the trial Judge over-rule those motions, within 30 days of the filing of the court’s order the Counsel for the Defendants must then file a Notice of Appeal. This appeals the decicisions of the court and the convictions and sentence to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, wherein the defendant’s defense attorney might argue that the sentence is unjust, or that the judge made an error in his ruling about which evidence was allowed to be presented in court and which evidence was not. The attorney may ask that the panel of 3 judges which make up the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to review that evidence to see if it actually supports the ruling. The prosecution will also make a case for why the trial and all rulings therein were fair and just, and should be allowed to stand.

In order to educate the Court of Criminal Appeals about the case, the Defense counsel must file the transcripts of all the testimony and arguments and certain of the exhibits for the court’s consideration. Upon filing of this record, the Defense counsel must then prepare a written appellate brief and file the same with the court.   The state then has an opportunity to file a responsive brief and then the case is set for oral argument before the Court.

Once the Court reaches a decision, the third step involves petitioning the Tennessee Supreme Court, which either side may do. The Supreme Court has the right to deny a hearing (unlike the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which must hear a case). If the Supreme Court denies the petition, then the Appeals Court’s decision stands.

What if an appeal is not granted?

If Vandenburg and Batey’s attorney is not successful in this part of the appeals process, he may file – within one year – a petition for post-conviction relief in Davidson County, since the trial was held in Nashville. The petition requests that a defendant’s sentence and conviction be overturned because his or her constitutional rights were violated during the trial. In this case, for example, the young men’s attorney might claim that by not changing the venue of the trial, and by not sequestering the jury, Batey and Vandenburg were denied their constitutional right to a fair trial. The Defendant’s may claim they were denied the effective assistance of counsel. If the court sides with the defendants, they may receive a new trial; if not, the appeals process tarts all over again with the direct appeal.

If all appeals options are exhausted at the state level, the attorney may choose to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which claims that a defendant is being unlawfully detained. This step must prove that the defendants have had their federal constitutional rights violated. If the district court denies the appeal, the lawyer can petition the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – and if they deny the appeal, the lawyer can petition the U.S. Supreme Court – a “Hail Mary” play, as the U.S. Supreme Court rarely agrees to such petitions.

It may appear that Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg are out of options, but the appeals process may give them multiple chances to have their convictions re-considered. To learn more about how appeals are handled in Tennessee, contact Jeff Cherry of Lowery, Lowery & Cherry, PLLC in Lebanon for a free consultation.