There's an institutional preference to uphold a trial court's decision in the U.S. court system. Thus, for an appellate court to hear an appeal from a lower court after final judgment, the aggrieved party must demonstrate to the appeals court that the trial court made an error. Additionally, the error must have been substantial or "material." An appeal can reach as high as the United States Supreme Court.
After submitting a notice of appeal, a panel of judges at a higher court reviews your case. No jury is present, and you can't submit new evidence or call new witnesses. The panel of appellate judges will only look at what occurred in your original trial.
In a criminal case, appellate review can affect the overall outcome of the case and lead to:
- A new trial/retrial
- Different sentencing
- Reversing a guilty verdict
A few cases are decided based on written briefs, but many use oral arguments.
In criminal law, the first step in filing a successful criminal appeal is to show that a legal error occurred. Legal errors include:
- Incorrect jury instructions
- Lack of evidence
- Improperly admitted evidence
Harmless errors are errors unlikely to impact the result at trial substantially. These types of errors are not grounds for reversing the judgment of a lower court. Any error that does not affect a defendant or a litigant's substantial rights must be disregarded as a harmless error.
Common Grounds for a Criminal Appeal
Assuming that there was more than merely a harmless error during court proceedings, there are four primary legal arguments that serve as grounds for appeal:
- The lower court made a severe error of law (plain error)
- There is not sufficient evidence to support the verdict
- The lower court abused its discretion in making an errant ruling
- There was ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment
The appeals process takes plain error, not harmless error, into account. Plain error is an error or defect that affects the defendant's constitutional rights. Some plain errors affecting substantial rights are not brought to the court's attention in the form of timely objections.
Plain errors can form a basis for successfully appealing a criminal conviction. One example of plain error is when judges miscalculate sentences after convictions. Miscalculations in these equations often lead the Court of Appeals to remand cases to the trial judges for resentencing.
Insufficient Weight of Evidence
It is much more difficult to prevail in an appeal based on the alleged insufficient weight of evidence. Appellate courts review the transcripts of trials and read written briefs. They rarely hear the actual testimony of witnesses, view the presentation of evidence, or hear the parties' opening and closing arguments.
However, appellate attorneys might argue the trial judge improperly allowed or disallowed evidence into trials where proper admission of evidence and testimony would have led to different verdicts. In those cases, new evidence might come into play.
Abuse of Discretion
Judges make rulings throughout a criminal or civil case. Some rulings in legal areas give a judge a wide range of discretion.
If an appellate court finds that a judge abused this discretion, the ruling was "clearly unreasonable, erroneous, or arbitrary and not supported by the facts or law in the case."
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Ineffective assistance of counsel implies that a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to adequate representation and right to a fair trial has been violated.
In analyzing claims that a defendant's lawyer was ineffective, the principal goal is to determine whether the lawyer's conduct undermined the judicial process's functioning and that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result.
Many appellate courts have upheld convictions even if a defense attorney was ineffective. Their failures alone do not create an unfair jury trial. Similarly, appellate courts have held that a verdict may stand even if a juror was asleep. So long as the juror was awake during material parts of the trial.
Should You Appeal Your Conviction? Let an Appeals Lawyer Help You Decide
The laws your state court follows have specific elements that must be proven for any conviction. An appellate lawyer can help you establish facts to show the verdict of your case should be overturned on appeal.
So, whether you have questions about felony or misdemeanor criminal appeals, criminal charges, or any other legal issues, experienced criminal defense attorneys in your area can set your mind at ease.