Skip to main content
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

The Basis for a Criminal Appeal

There's an institutional preference to uphold a trial court's rulings and findings in the U.S. judicial system. Thus, for an appellate court to hear an appeal from a lower court the aggrieved party must demonstrate to the appellate court that an error was made at the trial level. Additionally, the error must have been substantial or material.

"Harmless errors," or those unlikely to make a substantial impact on the result at trial, are not grounds for reversing the judgment of a lower court. Any error, defect, irregularity, or variance, which does not affect a defendant, or a litigant's substantial rights, shall be disregarded as a harmless error. In other words, the first step in filing a successful criminal appeal is to show that there was more than just a harmless error.

Basic Grounds for a Criminal Appeal

Assuming that there was more than merely harmless error, there are four basic grounds for appeal:

  1. The lower court made a serious error of law (plain error);
  2. The weight of the evidence does not support the verdict;
  3. The lower court abused its discretion in making an errant ruling;
  4. The claim of ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

Criminal Appeal Based on Plain Error

Plain error is an error or defect that affects the defendant's substantial rights, even though the parties did not bring this error or defect to the judge's attention during trial. Of course, some plain errors or defects affecting substantial rights may be noticed although they were not brought to the attention of the court in the form of timely objections. Plain errors can form a basis for a successful appeal of a criminal conviction as well as for overturning a wide variety of court verdicts and rulings.

One common example of plain error is when judges miscalculate sentences after convictions. Miscalculations in these equations often leads appellate courts to return cases to these trial court judges for re-sentencing based on plain error in sentencing.

Criminal Appeal Based on Insufficient Weight of Evidence

It is much more difficult to prevail in an appeal based on the alleged insufficient weight of evidence. Although appellate courts review the transcripts of trials, they almost never hear actual testimony of witnesses, view the presentation of evidence, or hear the parties' opening and closing arguments. Consequently, they are not in the best position to assess the weight of evidence in many cases. With DNA evidence now available, appellate attorneys can now reveal situations when a judge improperly allowed or disallowed evidence into trials where proper admission of evidence and testimony would have led to different verdicts.

Criminal Appeal Based on Abuse of Discretion

Judges make rulings throughout a criminal or a civil case. Some rulings are in legal areas that give a judge a wide range of discretion. If an appellate court finds that a judge abused this discretion, it means the ruling was "clearly unreasonable, erroneous, or arbitrary and not supported by the facts or law in the case." Due to longstanding state histories of abusing discretion in favor of local biases, the federal sentencing guidelines were developed to prevent this kind of negative abuse in federal sentencing.

Criminal Appeal Based on 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 have been violated. In analyzing claims that a defendant's lawyer was ineffective the principal goal is to determine whether the lawyer's conduct so undermined the functioning of the judicial process that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result.

Many appellate courts have held that if a defense attorney was ineffective, even asleep, but his failures alone did not create an unfair trial, the conviction will stand. Similar appellate courts have held that a verdict may stand when a juror was asleep, so long as the juror was awake during "material" parts of the trial.

Should You Appeal Your Conviction? Let an Attorney Help You Decide

The laws of your state have specific elements that must be proven for any conviction. Among other things, a criminal defense attorney can help you establish facts to show the verdict of your case should be overturned on appeal. So whether you have questions about criminal appeals or about criminal charges you're facing, there are experienced criminal defense attorneys in your area who can set your mind at ease.

Was this helpful?

Thank you. Your response has been sent.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified criminal lawyer to make sure your rights are protected.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

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.

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options