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Anyone convicted of a crime has the right to appeal that conviction if they believe a legal error has occurred. If you have been convicted of a crime and plan to appeal, you are no longer known as the defendant, you are now the appellant in the case.
In criminal cases, an appeal asks a higher court to look at the record of the trial proceedings to determine if a legal error occurred that may have affected the outcome of the trial or the sentence imposed by the judge.
Appealing Legal Errors
An appeal rarely challenges the decision of the jury, but rather challenges any legal errors that the judge or the prosecution may have made during the trial. Any ruling that the judge made during the preliminary hearing, during pre-trial motions and during the trial itself can be appealed if the appellant believes the ruling was in error.
For example, if your lawyer made a pre-trial motion challenging the legality of the search of your car and the judge ruled that the police did not need a search warrant, that ruling can be appealed because it allowed evidence to be seen by the jury that would not have otherwise seen.
Notice of Appeal
Your attorney will have plenty of time to prepare your formal appeal, but in most states, you have a limited time to announce your intention to appeal your conviction or sentence. In some states, you have only 10 days to decide if there are issues that can be appealed.
Your notice of appeal will need to include the exact issue or issues upon which you are basing your appeal. Many appeals have been rejected by higher courts simply because the appellant waited too long to raise the issue.
Records and Writs
When you appeal your case, the appellate court will receive the record of the criminal trial and all rulings leading up to the trial. Your attorney will file a written brief outlining why you believe your conviction was affected by legal error.
The prosecution likewise will file a written brief telling the appellate court why it believes the ruling was legal and appropriate. Usually, after the prosecution files its brief, the appellant can file a follow-up brief in rebuttal.
The Next Highest Court
Although it does happen, the attorney who handled your criminal trial will probably not handle your appeal. Appeals are usually handled by lawyers who have experience with the appeals process and working with higher courts.
Although the appeals process varies from state to state, the process generally starts with the next highest court in the system - state or federal - in which the trial was held. In most cases, this is the state appellate.
The party that loses at the appeals court can apply to the next highest court, usually the state supreme court. If the issues involved in the appeal are constitutional, the case can then be appealed to the federal district appeals court and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Direct Appeals/Automatic Appeals
Anyone who is sentenced to death is automatically given a direct appeal. Depending on the state, the appeal may be mandatory or dependent on the defendant's choice. Direct appeals always go to the highest court in the state. In federal cases, the direct appeal goes to the federal courts.
A panel of judges decides on the outcome of direct appeals. The judges then can either affirm the conviction and sentence, reverse the conviction, or reverse the death sentence. The losing side can then petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Appeals Rarely Successful
Very few criminal trial appeals are successful. That's why when a criminal appeal is granted, it makes headlines in the media because it is rare. In order for a conviction or a sentence to be overturned, the appeals court not only must find that an error occurred, but also that the error was clear and serious enough to affect the outcome of the trial.
A criminal conviction can be appealed on the basis that the strength of the evidence presented a trial did not support the verdict. This type of appeal is significantly more expensive and much more lengthy than a legal error appeal and even more rarely successful.