Criminal Appeals

In the realm of criminal appeals, the first stop is the state or federal appellate court. In criminal law proceedings in the United States, defendants may appeal a case if an error was made during their initial trial. Lower court errors may arise from the procedural aspects of the trial or from the conviction itself.

What Does the Appellate Court Do?

The appellate court serves as an oversight body for the lower courts. This means that it is primarily responsible for ensuring that the way a trial was conducted and the verdict handed down by a lower court were both compliant with applicable criminal law and procedure. For this reason, appellate law does not consider direct evidence but instead focuses on how the case was handled at the trial court level.

The appellate court thus serves as an important check on the power of the lower courts. The process opens them up to judicial scrutiny and oversight. However, the appellate court may refuse to review a lower court case if the appeal issues presented do not have sufficient legal merit. If the appellate court finds that all applicable laws and procedures were correctly followed, then the lower court case ruling will be upheld.

Who Can Use the Appellate Court System?

In criminal law, only the defendant can file an appeal. The prosecution is not allowed to appeal a not guilty verdict because of the prohibition against double jeopardy contained in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It holds that a person who has been tried and exonerated of a crime cannot be tried for the same crime again. Just as in an initial criminal trial, the defendant retains the right to an attorney to be appointed if one cannot be afforded.

How Does One File an Appeal?

Most jurisdictions require the defendant to file a criminal appeal within 30 days of a conviction being handed down. The defendant must file an appellate brief, which is usually prepared by an attorney and details the alleged legal and/or procedural errors of the lower court. This is essentially the defendant’s way of asking for the lower court ruling to be reviewed. The brief guides the appeals court toward the issues to be addressed.

In addition, the defendant must provide the record of the original trial for the appellate court to review. The record includes all transcripts, other documents and the evidence that was introduced during the trial. The prosecution will provide its own brief explaining why the conviction is valid. After the submission of both initial briefs, the defendant may then file a rebuttal brief. The court may take several months to decide whether or not it will hear a criminal appeal.

What Is to Be Expected From an Appellate Decision?

In many cases, errors that occur during a criminal trial are considered “harmless,” and the court may uphold the lower court’s decision. This doctrine is included in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and state statutes and is also supported by extensive case law.

However, if an appellate court decides that the errors were particularly egregious and caused harm to the defendant, it may warrant a reversal of the conviction or a retrial. Convictions based on errors that involve the defendant’s constitutional rights generally will be reversed unless the errors are found to be harmless. Additionally, even if the appellate court upholds the lower court’s conviction, it may revisit and correct errors in the trial court judge’s sentencing.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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