Winning on appeal of a criminal conviction or sentencing with the Michigan Court of Appeals is never easy, and truthfully, rare. This is particularly true when defendants argue ineffective assistance of counsel in appealing a conviction. On December 12, Rosa Sharie Watson’s conviction of arson of a dwelling and arson of insured property was overturned after a divided panel of the appeals court found Watson’s defense attorney ineffective due to the fact he failed to retain an independent fire expert.
The defendant had allegedly told her defense lawyer about a fire expert who would testify on her behalf, demonstrating that positive evidence of an intentional fire was lacking, and that the incident should have been classified as outcome undetermined. However, Watson’s lawyer did not contact this expert fire witness. At trial, an expert fire witness for the prosecution testified that evidence concluding that the fire was accidental was non-existent, and because other witnesses contradicted the defendant the fire must have been started intentionally.
Watson’s attorney also failed to challenge the admission of other criminal offenses she had been accused of, which had nothing to do with committing arson or the destruction of a dwelling. These events included uttering and publishing, embezzlement, and attempt to commit insurance fraud, which Watson was never charged with. The appeals court found that the trial court should and would have denied admission of this evidence had her defense lawyer challenged its admission.
In the end, two of the three appeals court panel judges sided with Watson. Judges Douglas Shapiro and Jane Beckering concluded that the defendant deserves a new trial. Had the Michigan Court of Appeals not reversed Watson’s conviction, she would continue to serve 7 to 30 years in prison.
Appealing a conviction with the Michigan Court of Appeals is a complex process. While it is a second chance for a defendant to obtain a better outcome, judges rarely side with a defendant who claims ineffective assistance of counsel. This is a huge win for Ms. Watson at this time, although there is no way to determine whether the new trial will end in a conviction or acquittal.
The most important step a defendant should take when appealing a conviction is to work with a highly experienced and skilled Michigan criminal appeals lawyer. This is not a process that every criminal defense attorney is familiar with; who you choose can make a difference in whether your appeal is successful.