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What Happens When You Appeal a Sentence?

Imagine you were charged with a serious felony by your state prosecutor. You went to trial and, despite your attorney's best efforts, twelve people didn't believe your story and found you guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." Can you appeal? Now imagine the same scenario, but instead of taking the case to trial, you pled guilty because you didn't really want to deal with the hassle of a court case. Can you appeal in this situation?

The answer in the first case is yes; if you went to trial and were convicted, you have the automatic opportunity to file an appeal of your conviction and sentence. In the second case, the opportunity to have the court of appeal review your case is not automatic. Your attorney will have to ask permission from the court to file an appeal of a plea bargain or guilty plea. Also, keep in mind that appeals can only be used to challenge errors in the criminal process or in the application of the law, not to simply get a second bite at the apple, so to speak.

The following is an explanation of what happens when you appeal a sentence, including the importance of speaking with a criminal defense attorney skilled in appellate work.

Does My Appeal Happen Automatically?

As stated above, while you do have the automatic right to an appeal if you've been convicted, you have to trigger the process, so to speak. To trigger your right to an appeal, an attorney must file the notice of appeal and an appellate brief, in which they argue your reasons for appeal. Criminal defendants who plead guilty (or no contest) usually have their request to appeal denied.

Timing, Court Transcripts, and Filing the Appellate Brief

In order to get a court of appeals to look at your case, your attorney will need to file a notice of appeal in a timely fashion. There are rarely second chances with the deadline -- you either meet it or you don't. If you don't, you'll need good cause as to why you didn't follow the filing rules. For this reason, it's important to tell you attorney about your desire to file an appeal as soon as possible. If your criminal defense attorney isn't skilled in appellate work, they'll refer you to someone else. Regardless, the clock is ticking and you need to make sure you file your notice of appeal on time.

Your lawyer will order the trial transcript from the court reporter once your notice of appeal is filed with the intermediate-level appellate court (or state Supreme Court in some jurisdictions). A transcript is the official record of what happened in your case. Your lawyer and the prosecutor will write appellate briefs arguing legal issues, which they'll support with the trial transcript.

Is an Appeal a Retrial?

While you may have a new trial strategy, new evidence, or simply didn't like your lawyer, the plain truth is that you can't bring that into an appeal. Appellate judges will look only at the "four corners" of the court reporter's transcript to make sure that the verdict was correct based upon the evidence, that the trial was fair, and that there wasn't a violation of your right to due process. The judges will come to a decision and write an opinion stating their reasons for either affirming your conviction or granting your appeal.

What Can the Appellate Court Do with My Case?

There are a few things that can happen if you appeal your case:

  • The court can keep the conviction the way it is ("affirming the conviction").
  • The judge can remand the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings.
  • The judge can reverse the conviction and remand back to the trial court for a new trial.

Keep in mind, if the court of appeals affirms your conviction, you may still be able to seek relief from a higher court through a writ or other habeas petition.

What Happens When You Appeal a Sentence in Your Case? Get Answers from a Lawyer

A conviction doesn't have to mean game over for your case. There are several strategies your defense attorney may be able to pursue on appeal, depending on the facts of your situation. But you shouldn't try to play the appeal game on your own. Get a skilled criminal defense attorney on your side that specializes in appellate work.

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