Criminal Appeals

Overview

After a court has convicted and sentenced a criminal defendant, the defendant may file an appeal to a higher court, asking it to review the lower court's decision for legal errors that may have affected the outcome of the case. If the appellate court grants the appeal, it may reverse the lower court's decision in whole or in part. If the appellate court denies the appeal, the lower court's decision stands.

The Right to Appeal

If a conviction results from a defendant's guilty plea, the defendant does not have an automatic right to appeal their conviction. In most jurisdictions, an appeal will be heard only if the defendant is granted permission to proceed by the appellate court. Criminal defendants who were convicted by a judge or jury at trial, however, have an absolute right to appeal their convictions. Additionally, all states which enforce the death penalty allow an automatic appeal of cases involving a death sentence. If a court acquits the defendant, the prosecutor may not appeal the verdict. Appealing a verdict of "not guilty" would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Prosecutors may, however, appeal all pre-trial rulings and decisions regarding the admissibility of evidence at trial.

Grounds for Appeal

Potential grounds for appeal in a criminal case include legal error, juror misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. Legal errors may result from improperly admitted evidence, incorrect jury instructions, or lack of sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict. To grant the appeal, the appellate court must find that these errors affected the outcome of the case. If the errors would not have changed the verdict, they are considered harmless. A conviction may also be appealed if the defendant reasonably believes that the jury conducted itself improperly during deliberations or the trial itself. Jury misconduct includes the use of experiments, drug or alcohol abuse during deliberations or trial, and improper communications between jurors and witnesses or counsel. Finally, criminal defendants often appeal their cases when they feel that they were not provided with adequate representation. To succeed in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendants must typically prove that but for their counsel's actions, the outcome of the case would have been different.

Process of Appellate Review

If a state court convicts a defendant, the ruling is appealed to an intermediate-level state appellate court. If the defendant is unsuccessful in the intermediate court, the defendant may appeal their conviction to the state's highest court. Each state has its own court naming system. In California, the state's highest court is the California Supreme Court. In New York, the highest court is the New York State Court of Appeals, and the New York State Supreme Court is a trial court. Review of appeals in state's highest court is discretionary and is limited to only a small percentage of cases. If the defendant can frame the appeal in terms of a federal issue, the defendant may then pursue relief in the federal court system. Defendants convicted initially in a federal trial court may appeal their case directly to the federal appellate court. If unsuccessful, they may then seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

An appeal is not a retrial of the case. Rather, the appellate court reviews the record of the lower court's proceedings to determine if there are adequate grounds to grant the appeal. The record includes all pre-trial and post-trial motions, all evidence admitted to the court and a word-for-word transcript of the trial. In addition to analyzing the record, appellate courts also review written briefs submitted by each party. Appellate briefs frame the legal issues raised on appeal and set forth persuasive legal arguments to support their position. The court may also hear oral argument from counsel in order to clarify any points raised in the written briefs.