RHS students get to see court of appeals in action
Rolla High School students this past week got a lesson in how the Missouri courts work, watched arguments take place for an actual case and a few of the students took part in a mock trial based on a real case.
On Wednesday morning, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, convened court in the RHS gymnasium to hear oral arguments in a case on a special divisional docket. (See sidebar, “About the case: Beard v. State”)
Students in the government and political science classes at RHS attended the court session along with school staff and a few members of the public.
“This is an actual case, not a mock trial. These are real attorneys,” said RHS Principal Jim Pritchett during his introduction before the judges heard the arguments.
Presiding Judge Nancy Rahmeyer and Judge Don Burrell, both of Springfield, Mo., and Judge Mary Sheffield, of Rolla, heard arguments in the case.
After attorneys in the case made their arguments, the court adjourned and the three judges then held a presentation for the attendees on how Missouri’s court system works.
This presentation covered the procedure by which a case makes its way through the court system to be heard by the court of appeals as well as noted the history and current processes of the Missouri non-partisan court plan.
Sheffield, who was appointed to the appeals court in the Southern District in 2012, began the discussion noting that the judicial branch of government is responsible for making sure the Constitution is protected and that laws are interpreted correctly.
She also explained the difference between trial and appeals courts. Trial courts involve one judge.
There are a total of seven judges on the state Court of Appeals, Southern District, and while normally three judges will hear a case like the one Wednesday, in some cases all seven judges are called on to hear arguments.
Trial judges are elected, but appellate and state Supreme Court judges are appointed through the state’s non-partisan court plan, which Sheffield said “ensures judicial integrity.” The appellate and state Supreme Court judges are then placed on ballots and voters can decide whether to retain them or not.
A case can be appealed from a trial court, or circuit court, to the court of appeals through an appeal by right. A discretionary appeal can be made at the appellate court level to move the case to the state Supreme Court.
According to Sheffield, a few cases, such as those involving the death penalty, can go directly from a trial court to the state Supreme Court.
At the appellate court level, there are no witnesses and no new evidence presented from the previous circuit court case, Sheffield said. Appellate judges review the trial record and briefs submitted by the attorneys for the appellant and the respondent. Oral arguments also can be made, she said, and judges can ask attorneys questions. Oral arguments are open to the public in appeals court.
The appeal from a trial court to the appeals court must include specific claims of error.
“Was there a mistake made in the trial court? Was it truly prejudicial? Was it a mistake so bad that the trial needs to be redone?” Sheffield said, listing questions that must be answered to decide if the case should be appealed.
Sheffield compared the appeals process to a review of a call in a football game. The trial judge would be the referee and the appeals court would be the instant replay.
Sheffield said the opinion of the judge regarding the law or the defendants should not be taken into account when judges make decisions.
Judge Rahmeyer said there are decisions she has had to make where she had to follow a law that she did not personally agree with. “We look at the facts and look at the law,” she said.
The time frame for appellate judges to make their decisions varies from case to case, the audience was told.
The judges also discussed how court shows on television have an impact on how people view the courts, noting how many jurors expect things in court that they see on crime and law shows.
After hearing the arguments, Benjamin Hushaw, a junior at RHS, told the Rolla Daily News, “It’s a lot different than TV,” he said. “Some of the arguments seemed far-fetched.”
Judge Rahmeyer said not every single case has DNA, fingerprints or a video showing the crime. Many times, it’s one person’s words against another’s.
Also during the discussion, the judges talked about their background and how they got to their current positions. Before serving on the appeals court, Sheffield was an associate circuit judge in Phelps County, first elected at age 26, and a circuit judge in the 25th judicial circuit, which covers Phelps, Maries, Texas and Pulaski counties, for 29 years.
After the presentation, three RHS students were chosen to participate in a shortened mock trial based on a real case, State v. Steward (Mo. banc 2010). The case involved an 18-year-old accused of murder, who was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.
One student was chosen to play the defendant. Two others were chosen to be the defendant's attorney and the prosecuting attorney, who made arguments as to why the case should be appealed.
About the actual case: Beard v. State
The Court of Appeals, Southern District, regularly convenes in Springfield, Mo., and Poplar Bluff, but on Wednesday morning, three of the appellate judges held court in Rolla.
Presiding Judge Nancy Rahmeyer and Judge Don Burrell, both of Springfield, Mo., and Judge Mary Sheffield, from Rolla, heard arguments in the case of Christopher R. Beard, appellant, v. State of Missouri, respondent.
The case, originated in the 31st Judicial Circuit Court of Greene County, was sent to the appeals court, and attorneys for both parties argued whether the identity of a confidential informant should have been disclosed in a drug-related case.
Beard, who did not appear in person, was represented by his attorney, Samuel E. Buffaloe, and the state will be represented by Richard A. Starnes, assistant attorney general.
Buffaloe said his defendant, who was found guilty in circuit court on three different counts of selling drugs, requested that the confidential informant in the case be disclosed, but he said the state refused.
“It’s an easy case for this court,” Buffaloe said, noting that it fell to the prosecutors to present a need for why the informant did not need to be made public, and that they did not do so.
Buffaloe said the circuit court judge should have ordered a mistrial. Buffaloe said a law enforcement officer claimed in circuit court that the information should remain confidential so that individual would not be subject to retaliation by the suspect or his friends.
“The officer was implying to the jury that Beard is a dangerous person, and he was not supposed to bring in character aspects into the case,” Buffaloe argued.
Buffaloe also noted that in circuit court, he cited many times that the testimony of the officer didn’t match his initial report of the drug purchases.
During Starnes’s response, he argued that it is the defendant's responsibility to show an essential need for disclosure of a confidential informant, not just a preferred need.
Judge Rahmeyer asked Starnes if the defendant knew who the confidential informant was, why would he be fighting to reveal the identity of the person.
Starnes replied that defendants often make claims of innocence when they’re not. “There’s no evidence to support that since he is asking, he obviously didn’t know.”
“For this court to find for the appellant is to ignore all case law,” Starnes said.
Buffaloe had a chance to respond to Starnes’s arguments and he argued that the confidential informant should have been made public and called to testify.
“We don’t know what the informant would’ve said (had he testified),” Buffaloe argued. “The informant could’ve said he is not Beard (who sold him the drugs).”
Buffaloe also said the need for the informant to testify was great because Beard had not alibi witnesses.
“Mr. Beard did not receive a fair trial because the court did not require the state to disclose the confidential informant,” Buffaloe said.
As of now, Beard has been sentenced to seven years for each drug-related charge, unless Beard wins this appeal.
According to Missouri online court records, no decision has been made on the case as of Friday afternoon.