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Appeals, Writs, and Habeas Corpus: FAQ

The criminal justice system exists not only to convict wrongdoers and put them behind bars. It also exists to protect defendants and from unlawful abuses of legal processes or unfair treatment. There are some legal processes that support the balance of justice such as appeals, writs, and writs of habeas corpus.

An appeal is a petition to a higher court by a party who seeks to overturn a lower court's ruling. A writ is a directive from a higher court that orders a lower court or government official to take a certain action in accordance with the law. Finally, a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court. It aims to determine whether that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether they should be released from custody.

Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about these legal matters.

What Are the Bases for an Appeal?

The basis of an appeal must be a reversible error in the application of the law at the trial court level (i.e., based on the court record, the judge clearly misapplied the law). In criminal cases, an appeal can target the conviction itself or just the sentencing portion of the decision without regard to the underlying conviction.

There are a few specific bases for appeals in criminal cases. They all have to do with the misapplication of the law. If the judge abused discretion when ruling on matters in a case, the injured party could file an appeal to overturn the harmful rulings. Another reason a defendant might file an appeal is if the weight of evidence does not reasonably support a guilty verdict. Also, in some circumstances, a defendant might allege that their lawyer's poor performance resulted in their conviction, so they were deprived of a fair trial.

Issues for appeals must also be preserved for appeal. That is, they must be brought up at the original trial before being presented to the appeals court. In the course of the trial, the trial judge must be given the opportunity to correct a problem first, so an issue for appeal must be preserved with a timely objection. In some states, a criminal conviction cannot be appealed unless the defense first makes a motion for new trial after conviction. Then, only after the original court refuses to grant a new trial, the defense can seek an appeal.

Preservation requires that the defense make an objection to the lower court before an issue becomes eligible for examination by an appellate court. For example, if a piece of incriminating evidence is improperly presented to the jury at trial, but the defense attorney forgot to object to it, it is deemed that the defendant has waived objection to that evidence, so any appeal of conviction on that basis would be denied (even if other, preserved issues are examined upon appeal).

Can Someone Appeal Because Their Attorney Made Mistakes?

Because errors in the trial court must be preserved by timely objections, skilled trial counsel is crucial to success upon appeal. But, not everyone has access to top-notch defense counsel, so sometimes the competence of the trial attorney becomes the basis for post-conviction relief.

Successfully appealing a verdict because of a deficient attorney is a difficult proposition. Many states require that these challenges be brought through a separate post-conviction review process or through a habeas corpus hearing. Regardless of the process, convicted defendants cannot win an appeal just because they had a less-than-stellar lawyer. They could only prevail on the basis that their legal counsel was so incompetent that they were essentially denied their Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial (known as an "ineffective assistance of counsel" claim).

The standard for this appeal is very high. Many decisions appear to be mistakes in hindsight, after a jury has returned a guilty verdict, but often the appellate courts will categorize these mistakes as tactical decisions that simply did not work out. Courts tend to maintain a strong presumption that the lawyer's assistance was within professional standards.

Also, an error of defense counsel will not be a basis for overturning a conviction unless the appellate court determines that the outcome of the trial was likely affected by the mistake. So, if the rest of the evidence overwhelmingly points toward the guilt of a defendant, an attorney's failure to exclude some incriminating testimony would not be a grounds for reversal.

When Are Appeals Filed?

Parties can file an appeal after a final judgment or order has been reached by the trial court. This is quite simply for reasons of efficiency, so that the lower court system is not bogged down by delays and trials are not constantly put on hold. At the conclusion of a criminal trial, a convicted defendant can ask for immediate relief (e.g., motion for a new trial, motion for directed verdict) from the presiding judge that would effectively override the jury's decision. These requests are rarely successful.

When an appeal is allowed to proceed before the trial process is complete, it is called an interlocutory appeal. This happens when a party files an appeal regarding a specific matter in a case before the full trial concludes. This often requires consent from the trial court or the other party, because the legal system is not meant to be delayed by repeated appeals. Therefore, interlocutory appeals are not common. A court would only consider it in very specific circumstances, such as an emergency basis for relief, a unique question of law, or by consent of all the parties.

Does An Appeal Mean A New Trial?

Generally, an appellate court does not conduct a new trial. In a typical appeal, the parties do not present new issues or witness testimony. The appellate court will only review the trial transcript and the exhibits presented during the trial (the trial record) or will perhaps examine evidence that was allegedly excluded improperly at the lower court.

Each side will present its legal arguments in the form of briefs. Sometimes interested third-parties, like advocacy groups or civil rights organizations, will be allowed to send their own legal briefs, called amici curiae (or friends of the court) briefs. Then, the appellate court determines whether there were errors in either procedure or the application of law.

Even if there were errors, if they are deemed to be inconsequential — legally called "harmless errors" — a court would not be obligated to overturn the judgment or grant a new trial.

There are certain states or specialty courts that specifically allow a losing defendant to request a new trial in the appellate court. This is called a "trial de novo" appeal. This is most likely to occur when the lower court used an informal or abnormal process, such as conducting hearings without creating a record. This is most likely to occur in diversionary courts, like drug courts, juvenile courts, or traffic courts.

Are All Judgments Eligible for Appeal?

There is no absolute right to an appeal. Even though all states do provide for some means of appeal, appeals are not constitutionally required. However, if there is a legal mechanism to seek an appeal, the appeals process must be fair.

Each state has laws that outline the types of cases which appellate courts may review. Some appeals, especially appeals taken from appellate courts, are discretionary. A party might not like the verdict of a trial, but dislike will likely not go far to sustain an appeal. The higher court, often the state's supreme court, can simply decline to hear the appeal and leave the lower court's ruling intact.

What is the appeals process?

In most state court proceedings, the appellant or petitioner (the party appealing the verdict) must meet a deadline for filing appeal. In federal court, counsel must file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the ruling. An appeal that is not timely filed according to the local deadlines might be denied on a procedural basis.

The filing of the notice of appeal starts the clock running on the appeals process. From that point, there are other prescribed deadlines. The petitioner must submit a legal brief detailing the alleged errors of law made by the trial court, and the respondent or appellee (the party that prevailed at the trial) is then given time to write a response.

Once the appellate court receives both petitioner and respondent briefs, it will analyze the arguments and make a determination of whether:

  • There were errors of law made by the trial court; and
  • Whether the errors rise to the level of "reversible error" (very serious errors).

Harmless errors will not serve as a basis for relief from the appellate court.

There may or may not be oral arguments presented by petitioner and respondent. If the court decides to hear oral arguments, the petitioner will present their arguments and field questions from the judge(s) and then the respondent will do the same. Each side will typically receive an equal amount of time to answer questions.

Whether the appeals court hears oral arguments or issues a ruling based solely on the written briefs, the court will either:

  1. Affirm the decision;
  2. Order a new trial;
  3. Modify the ruling in some way; or
  4. Send the case back to the trial court with directions to consider certain evidence or apply a certain legal standard.

What are the odds of a successful appeal?

The number of successful appeals is low. Appellate courts give the trial court great leeway in conducting trials. The law does not guarantee perfect trials. Appeals courts, therefore, will only overturn verdicts which contain clear, serious errors of law.

Because of the discretion allowed to trial courts, petitioners carry an even greater burden in proving that errors of law were serious and not harmless. If an appellate court can find any reasonable argument that the error would not have changed the verdict (and is therefore "harmless"), it will refuse to overturn the verdict.

There are, of course, cases in which serious errors occurred, and appeals courts will overturn those verdicts. Particularly serious are charges that the trial court denied rights guaranteed by the constitution, such as due process and equal protection rights, and that denial of those rights led to the conviction of the defendant.

What's a writ of habeas corpus?

Literally translated, a writ of habeas corpus is a court order to "produce the body." Anyone who is imprisoned can file the action, as can people who were held in contempt of court by a judge.

Also known as "the Great Writ," a writ of habeas corpus, serves as a check on the power of the government and offers a prisoner a legal avenue to contest their imprisonment.

A habeas corpus petition can be filed in state or federal court. Before filing in federal court, however, state prisoners must exhaust all state options first. Prisoners have the right to challenge illegal imprisonment or inhumane prison conditions.

While this process can be used to challenge pre-trial detention and excessive bail, the habeas corpus action is typically regarded as a last-resort source of justice for someone fighting an unjust sentence of imprisonment.

Questions About the Appeal and Habeas Corpus Process? Ask an Attorney

Postconviction actions are some of the most complicated aspects of the criminal justice system. For help with these options, everyone should work with an expert criminal defense attorney who understands the legal landscape and can guide clients through the various legal processes necessary to help protect their freedom.

A skilled appellate lawyer, for example, can review the transcript of proceedings and search for judicial errors that could overturn the outcome. This change could come through an appeal or through a writ of habeas corpus, depending on the status of the case.

If you or someone close to you has been convicted or sentenced unfairly, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you today.

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