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Reversing a Conviction

If the trier of fact convicts you of a crime and you believe the guilty verdict was in error, you'll want to pursue the reversal of the conviction.

This article covers the basics of reversing a conviction. Specifically, it overviews appeals and writs, two of the most common ways a higher court reverses a conviction. While this article provides general information about these processes, it's important to remember that a successful appeal or writ depends on your case's facts and the laws of your jurisdiction.

Reversing a Criminal Conviction: Appeals and Writs

A criminal defendant can challenge their conviction in several ways. Two of the most common ways to challenge a conviction are appeals and writs. A successful challenge may lead to an acquittal of their charges or the expungement of their record.

Appeals are available in both state and federal courts. A criminal defendant who appeals their conviction requests that an appellate court review the trial court's judgment for legal errors. Depending on the facts of their case, the defendant may ask the appellate court to set aside a conviction.

Writs, on the other hand, are sometimes called an extraordinary remedy. Common writs include the following:

Criminal defendants generally use writs when they have no other available remedy. For example, a criminal defendant who has appealed to the highest court and lost their case may file a writ as a last resort in their criminal case.

Appeals Process Overview

In criminal law, the defendant has a constitutional right to a direct appeal to a higher court following a conviction. This means the defendant may request a higher court, like a circuit court or the U.S. Supreme Court, to review the lower court's judgment.

An appeal is not a new trial, and the appellate court does not retry a case on appeal. Instead, the higher court reviews a transcript of the lower court's trial and hears legal arguments from the defendant about why they believe the lower court made legal errors in their criminal case.

Courts rarely overturn lower court decisions. The Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant a fair trial, but it does not guarantee a "perfect" trial. Instead, the Constitution provides certain safeguards to defendants that account for errors and oversights.

Legal Errors: The Basis of an Appeal

If a criminal defendant believes the trial court made errors in handling the case, they may file a notice of appeal. The notice of appeal begins the appeals process.

A criminal defendant cannot appeal simply because they disagreed with the case's outcome. A criminal defendant must base their appeal on an alleged legal error. For example, the defendant may appeal the following types of legal errors:

  • The judge gave the jurors improper jury instructions
  • There was insufficient evidence to arrest the defendant
  • Their trial lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel during the case

An appellate court will overturn a guilty verdict only if the trial court erred in a way that significantly affected the case's outcome. The court of appeals generally defers to the trial court findings, particularly regarding findings of fact.

Remands and Reversals

If the appellate court decides to consider the appeal, it reviews the trial court's judgment. Then, it will either affirm, reverse, or remand the judgment.

If the appellate court affirms the judgment, the trial court's judgment stands. If it reverses the judgment, it sets aside the judgment. The appellate court may also remand the judgment on a specific issue, requiring the trial court to reconsider some aspect of the case based on the court's instructions.

For example, suppose the police obtained a search warrant to search your property. The search warrant restricted law enforcement to a search of your basement only. Suppose that the police illegally expanded the search to your entire home, and they found incriminating evidence in your attic. Law enforcement arrests you, and a jury ultimately convicts you of a crime. In such a case, you could appeal because law enforcement obtained the evidence illegally, and the trial court erred by not excluding it from trial.

Using the example above, prosecutors may still be able to obtain a guilty verdict without the illegally obtained evidence. It's important to understand that criminal appeals must focus on the case's specifics and not necessarily the outcome.

Harmless Error

Some errors at the trial court level are considered harmless. A harmless error does not substantially affect the result of a case. Appellate courts may identify harmless errors and decide to affirm the trial court's judgment.

Of course, some errors warrant a reversal, such as the use of a coerced confession. Appellate courts rarely interfere with a lower court's sentences handed down. But in some cases where the law specifies a particular sentence, the appellate court may send the case back for resentencing if the court gets it wrong.

Two reasonable juries can reach different verdicts on the same set of facts. One jury may convict a person while another may acquit them, but unless something goes wrong at the trial level, you cannot appeal a case simply because you believe the jury reached the wrong verdict. Instead, you must show the error was serious or manifest and likely change the case's outcome.

Reversing a Conviction Through Writs

If you have exhausted all your remedies through appeals but still believe the case was unjust or the court made a mistake, you may look into filing a writ. A writ is an order from a higher court directing a lower court to take some kind of action. A defendant typically files a writ in extraordinary situations where an appeal is not an option. While the trial court may not have erred, you may file a writ if some other injustice or error affected the verdict.

For example, a defendant whose attorney failed to consider a defense that may have changed the case's outcome may petition the higher court to issue a writ. Some writs allow defendants to introduce new evidence discovered post-conviction. Alternatively, they may introduce evidence, such as DNA profiling, if it tends to change the facts of their case.

Learn More About Reversing a Conviction by Speaking to a Lawyer

A convicted criminal has options regarding post-conviction relief. However, appellate procedure and filing writs are complex. Consider contacting a criminal defense attorney to discuss your case and determine if reversing your conviction is possible. An experienced defense lawyer or appeals lawyer can provide legal advice regarding the following:

  • Whether to request oral argument for your appeal
  • Whether you should file a writ of habeas corpus to challenge the circumstances of your confinement
  • Defense and litigation strategy for your federal or state court criminal case
  • The legal consequences of entering a guilty plea

If the government has charged you with a crime, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney near you.

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