In the criminal justice system, an individual convicted of a crime may appeal their case or sentence. An appeal asks a higher court, such as the state court of appeals or supreme court, to review certain aspects of the case for legal error. This commonly includes:
- Ineffective assistance of counsel
- Admission or exclusion of evidence by the trial court
- Clear error or abuse of discretion by the trial judge
This isn't the same as asking for a new trial because the defendant didn't like the outcome. Instead, an appeal will determine whether the conviction or the sentence was in error. Therefore, the appellant (the party who's appealing the verdict) must show a higher court the mistakes conducted by the trial court, not introduce new evidence.
The following criminal appeals process overview covers the basics of how courts decide whether to grant an appeal and how the appellate procedure works in a criminal case.
Criminal Appeals: How and When?
At the state and federal court levels, there are options for obtaining relief after a criminal conviction or sentence. States require an appellant to notify the courts and the government of the intent to appeal soon after a conviction or sentence. It can take several months for the appellate court to hear and decide whether to grant the appeal.
For example, Minnesota's criminal procedure rules distinguish the filing deadlines for different criminal cases. An appellant must file a notice of appeal after sentencing with the clerk of the appellate courts within the following deadlines:
- 30 days for a misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor case
- 60 days after an order denying a postconviction petition
- 90 days after sentencing to appeal a felony or gross misdemeanor sentence or conviction
While either side in a civil case can appeal following a verdict, only the defendant can appeal the guilty verdict in criminal cases. The government cannot appeal a not-guilty jury verdict because the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits a second prosecution for the same crime. This is more frequently known as double jeopardy. However, any party in a criminal case can appeal the sentence.
Criminal Appeal Process at a Glance: Briefs and the Record
As part of the defendant's appeal, an appellate brief is required. This brief describes the key legal issues (mistakes) the appellant believes affected the jury's decision and/or the sentence imposed and why it should be overturned. Additionally, the appellant will include their request for relief. This commonly includes a request for the following:
- Reversal of a conviction or dismissal of the criminal law case
- A request for the appellant to have a new trial
- A request for resentencing
In considering an appeal, the reviewing court looks only at the lower court's record and doesn't consider any new evidence. The record consists of the court reporter's transcripts of court proceedings, including:
- Everything said by the judge, the attorneys, or witnesses
- Evidence admitted, including documents or objects
- The defendant's guilty plea, if applicable, and waiver of constitutional rights
In reaching a decision on the appeal, the higher court looks to this record and the written briefs filed by both sides. An appellant files an opening brief, arguing how and why the conviction or sentence is legally erroneous.
In turn, the appellee (the government) may file its own brief highlighting the legal arguments why the district court (trial court) ruling should be upheld. The appellant can file a response known as the reply brief. This third brief may only respond to arguments raised by the appellee. The appellate court may hear oral arguments before deciding on the criminal appeal.
Additional Options After Losing an Appeal
After jurors return a verdict, a criminal defendant's journey in the system does not end. A convicted defendant who has exhausted all their appeals on a state level may file a writ of habeas corpus in the federal courts to show their constitutional rights were violated. The United States Supreme Court, Congress, and federal statutes have specified the conditions in which habeas corpus petitions must be handled when defendants allege illegal state action or contest the legality of their detention.
State Criminal Appeals: Examples
Keep in mind that your attorney will know the process for your particular court and jurisdiction. Some states grant an automatic appeal for capital offenses. These cases involve the death penalty as a possible punishment even if the court's decision in sentencing results in life in prison as the punishment.
The following examples illustrate how the appeals process generally works in different states:
- File a notice of appeal
- Prepare the record on appeal
- File superior court exhibits
- Correct or augment the record
- File certificate of interested entities and persons
- Begin briefing process
- File and/or answer motions (where applicable)
- Conduct oral arguments
- Justices discuss the case and issue a ruling
- File a motion for a new trial
- File a notice of appeal
- Pay for the preparation and filing of the record (unless indigent)
- File your appellate brief (followed by the respondent's brief)
- Justices set the 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 to meet if you do not want your appeal waived. A lawyer can answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the appellate process and the likelihood of success for your appeal. Contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer to explore your options.