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In the realm of criminal appeals, the first stop is the state or federal appellate court. In criminal law proceedings in the United States, defendants may appeal a case if an error was made during their initial trial. Lower court errors may arise from the procedural aspects of the trial or from the conviction itself.
The appellate court serves as an oversight body for the lower courts. This means that it is primarily responsible for ensuring that the way a trial was conducted and the verdict handed down by a lower court were both compliant with applicable criminal law and procedure. For this reason, appellate law does not consider direct evidence but instead focuses on how the case was handled at the trial court level.
The appellate court thus serves as an important check on the power of the lower courts. The process opens them up to judicial scrutiny and oversight. However, the appellate court may refuse to review a lower court case if the appeal issues presented do not have sufficient legal merit. If the appellate court finds that all applicable laws and procedures were correctly followed, then the lower court case ruling will be upheld.
In criminal law, only the defendant can file an appeal. The prosecution is not allowed to appeal a not guilty verdict because of the prohibition against double jeopardy contained in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It holds that a person who has been tried and exonerated of a crime cannot be tried for the same crime again. Just as in an initial criminal trial, the defendant retains the right to an attorney to be appointed if one cannot be afforded.
Most jurisdictions require the defendant to file a criminal appeal within 30 days of a conviction being handed down. The defendant must file an appellate brief, which is usually prepared by an attorney and details the alleged legal and/or procedural errors of the lower court. This is essentially the defendant’s way of asking for the lower court ruling to be reviewed. The brief guides the appeals court toward the issues to be addressed.
In addition, the defendant must provide the record of the original trial for the appellate court to review. The record includes all transcripts, other documents and the evidence that was introduced during the trial. The prosecution will provide its own brief explaining why the conviction is valid. After the submission of both initial briefs, the defendant may then file a rebuttal brief. The court may take several months to decide whether or not it will hear a criminal appeal.
In many cases, errors that occur during a criminal trial are considered “harmless,” and the court may uphold the lower court’s decision. This doctrine is included in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and state statutes and is also supported by extensive case law.
However, if an appellate court decides that the errors were particularly egregious and caused harm to the defendant, it may warrant a reversal of the conviction or a retrial. Convictions based on errors that involve the defendant’s constitutional rights generally will be reversed unless the errors are found to be harmless. Additionally, even if the appellate court upholds the lower court’s conviction, it may revisit and correct errors in the trial court judge’s sentencing.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified appeals lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local appeals attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.