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Criminal Appeals Overview

An individual who's been convicted of a crime may "appeal" their case, or ask a higher court to review certain aspects of the case for legal error. This isn't the same as asking for a new trial because the defendant didn't like the outcome; but rather, an appeal will determine whether the conviction itself or the sentence imposed were reached in error. Therefore, the appellant (the party who's appealing the verdict) must show a higher court that there were errors in how the trial was conducted. This means no new evidence may be considered.

The following criminal appeals process overview covers the basics of how courts decide whether to grant an appeal and how the process works.

Criminal Appeal Process at a Glance: "Briefs" and the "Record"

In an appeal, the defendant (now called the "appellant") argues that, based on key legal mistakes which affected the jury's decision and/or the sentence imposed, the case should be dismissed or the appellant should be re-tried or re-sentenced. Some states, including California, grant an automatic appeal for capital offenses.

In considering an appeal , the court reviewing the case looks only at the "record" of the proceedings in the lower court, and doesn't consider any new evidence. The record is made up of the court reporter's transcripts of everything said in court, whether by the judge, the attorneys, or witnesses. Anything else admitted into evidence, such as documents or objects, also becomes part of the record.

In reaching a decision on the appeal, the higher court ("appellate court") looks to this record and to the written briefs filed by both sides of the appeal. For example, an appellant challenging a conviction or sentence files an opening brief, arguing how and why the conviction or sentence was legally "erroneous." In turn, the government files its own brief to illustrate why the conviction or sentence should be upheld. The appellant typically has an opportunity to file a second brief in response to the government's position, and the appellate court may hear oral arguments from each side before reaching a decision on the criminal appeal.

Criminal Appeals: How and When?

At both the state and federal court levels, there are many options for obtaining relief after a criminal conviction or sentence. It's important to note that, although it may take a number of months for a criminal appeal to be heard and decided, most states require an appellant to notify the courts and the government of the intent to appeal very soon after a conviction or sentence.

State Criminal Appeals: Examples

Keep in mind that your attorney will know the process for your particular court and jurisdiction, but the following examples illustrate how the process generally works in different states:


  1. File a notice of appeal;
  2. Prepare the record on appeal;
  3. File superior court exhibits;
  4. Correct or augment the record;
  5. File certificate of interested entities and persons;
  6. Begin briefing process;
  7. File and/or answer motions (where applicable);
  8. Conduct oral arguments; and then
  9. Justices discuss the case and issue a ruling.


  1. File a notice of appeal;
  2. Clerk and reporter will file their records of the proceedings in the lower court;
  3. File your brief (followed by respondent's brief); and then
  4. Justices set case for submission, discuss the case, and issue a ruling.

Get Professional Legal Help With the Criminal Appeals Process

While you have the right to appeal your case, there are important requirements and deadlines that must be met or else your appeal may be considered waived. A legal professional will be able to lay out your options and make sure you hit certain filing deadlines. Contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer today to explore your options.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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