Criminal Appeals

The appeals process is not a second trial in a higher court system. Instead, this initial appeal is your chance to contest the trial court's decision based on several potential legal issues. You must follow the appropriate appellate procedures depending on which court system initiated your case, either state or federal.

A person convicted of a crime might not have reached the end of the road. After receiving a final judgment in your criminal case, you're entitled to file a direct appeal with the assistance of an appeals lawyer.

Federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, while state courts follow their own appellate rules. Regardless of jurisdiction, a defendant's appeal begins after the timely filing of the notice of appeal and an appellant's brief.

The article below answers some frequently asked questions (FAQ) and provides additional resources to understand how to fight your criminal conviction and post-conviction remedies. If successful, an appeal can result in a new trial, a modification in your sentence, or a reversal of the guilty verdict.

Criminal Appeal Basics

An appeal is the review of the trial court's activities for legal error. The appellate court, or court of appeals, only reviews the record of the lower court proceedings and will not consider new evidence. The record consists of the court reporter's transcripts of statements by the judge, attorneys, and witnesses. Any documents or objects entered into evidence also become part of the record.

The appealing party (appellant) files a brief. This is a detailed written explanation of the errors supported by legal authority in the form of case law or statutes. The party responding (appellee) files a brief arguing that the lower court's ruling is correct and asking for the conviction and sentence to remain. A response brief is often permitted. In some cases, the court will permit oral arguments from the two sides before making a decision.

The appeals process can be complex and expensive, so it's important to understand how appeals work and what costs to expect.

Common Grounds for Appeal

The three commonly cited grounds for appeal include:

  • A violation of a defendant's constitutional right (e.g., an unfair trial due to juror misconduct or the government's failure to meet a speedy trial demand)
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel (e.g., a criminal defense lawyer's performance fell below the objective standard of reasonableness)
  • Evidentiary issues (e.g., lack of sufficient evidence to support the verdict or the trial judge abused their discretion or erred in admitting or excluding certain evidence)

It is difficult to overturn a jury verdict, but an appeal can still lead to a better outcome.

Winning an Appeal

Winning an appeal can be very difficult. At trial, the prosecution (district attorney) must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. On appeal, the burden is on the defendant to prove that an error occurred. You have to show that without this error, the case outcome would have been different. Errors that don't have a substantial effect on your constitutional rights are usually disregarded as harmless.

In addition to having the burden of proof, the defendant must also contend with the fact that appeals courts are highly deferential. This means that most of the time the appellate court will uphold the findings in the lower court. The trial judge and jury were present for the trial and testimony, so the appellate courts will uphold the findings except where major errors or misjudgments occur.

Can an Appeal Completely Overturn a Conviction?

An appeals court can reverse someone's criminal conviction. This is rare, but some errors are so harmful that a reversal is the best remedy.

For example, let's say law enforcement coerces a confession from someone. They can still appeal their conviction after pleading guilty. If they prove police misconduct, the appeal may result in a reversal of their conviction.

Are Sentencing Appeals Often Successful?

Appeals courts are very reluctant to overturn sentencing decisions. One significant exception is in cases where the sentence falls outside of statutory guidelines. In such instances, the appellate court may send the case back to the trial court for resentencing within the correct parameters.

Post-Conviction Relief

You can still explore other post-conviction remedies if your direct appeal is affirmed. The trial court may consider shortening your sentence if you file a petition for post-conviction relief.

Each jurisdiction has its own procedural rules for when the trial court can review such petitions. Petitioners often cite ineffective assistance of counsel in the trial or appellate phase, unfair application of sentencing laws, or other prejudice.

Writs of Habeas Corpus

A writ is a document or order from a higher court, such as a state supreme court that directs a lower court or official to take a specified action. For example, a criminal defendant can challenge the legality of their detention. A writ of habeas corpus challenges the legal basis of a defendant's imprisonment or the conditions during confinement.

Habeas corpus is a great defense against prisoners being held without charges for an indefinite period. It's meant to check the government's power and provide prisoners with a legal method to protest their imprisonment.

A writ is an extraordinary remedy. It isn't granted when another means, such as an appeal, is available. A defendant can typically only appeal a decision to a higher authority once, but you can file multiple writs arising from the same trial or several different kinds of writs for the same matter.

Talk to an Attorney About Your Criminal Appeal Options

An appeals attorney can complete a further review of your case and help you file a timely criminal appeal. Whether you want to contest your guilty plea, raise constitutional issues in your case, or challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, getting legal help can ensure a successful appeal. Learn more about the number of criminal appeals available by talking with a lawyer near you.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.