Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Playing the System: The Martin Appel Case

Gains and Losses

Appel first took his case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but in 1997, these justices unanimously upheld Judge Freedberg's decision. This didn't stop him; Appel went higher yet. Morganelli points out that recent changes in the law had made it more difficult for federal courts to second-guess state courts and "substitute their judgments," but this depended on how determined any given judge might be. The death penalty was always a hot potato, no matter how certain the guilt in the underlying case.

Martin Appel, 1995
Martin Appel, 1995

Billy Nolas and Robert Dunham from the Pennsylvania Capital Case Resource Center filed a petition to the federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. It went through several stages, focusing on the contention that Appel's 1986 attorneys the standby counsel had not fully investigated the possibility of incompetence before he'd been allowed to represent himself. They had not asked enough questions of his parents and girlfriend, who apparently had known more than they had said. As such, U.S. District Judge William Yohn, Jr. decided Appel had been deprived of legal counsel.

In the spring of 1999, nearly thirteen years after the incident, the federal appeals court ruled that Appel had not been competent to act as his own attorney. Thus, his conviction and death sentence were vacated. Morganelli called this a "bombshell," but Morning Call reporters described the justification. Appel was now eligible for a new trial, which had to commence within six months. Since a number of key witnesses were dead and an insanity defense loomed as a possibility, Morganelli met with the families most centrally involved and learned they wanted closure. A plea deal, given all that had occurred to that point, was the best way.

In 2001 Appel, now 42, pled guilty and was given three life sentences, plus 42 to 84 years on other charges. Morganelli, disheartened by the process, wrote, "His case is illustrative of the obstacles the system has in place for prosecutors in our attempt to convict and punish society's worst offenders." Judge Freedberg stated that Appel was "perhaps the worst offender this court has ever had before it." Relatives of the victims, too, believed that the system had worked for the offender and against the interests of the community.

At least the literary community had not been snowed. Apparently Appel tried selling his book to some literary agents, but none bit.

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