How does the criminal appeals process work?

Losing a criminal court case is a devastating moment. Many convicted criminals face jail time and penalties that can ruin one’s life. Those found guilty have other options available, including appealing their conviction or sentence.

Lawmakers designed the appeals process to allow a higher court to review a trial’s record for error. These “second opinions” have helped overturn wrongful convictions, reduce unjust sentences and root out discriminatory practices. So how does it work?

Appealing a conviction

People who believe a court made their conviction or plea in error will likely pursue an appeal to reverse the decision. An attorney will help guide appellants through this multi-step process:

  1. Notice of Appeal: The first step of appealing is filing a Notice of Appeal with the clerk of the lower court within 30 days of the ruling.
  2. Assembling the record: After paying fees, the court assembles the case record consisting of all relevant papers, transcripts, evidence, and arguments. To save money, appellants can request that the clerk include only specific documents instead of the entire case file. The clerk then submits the record to the appellate court for review. Appellate judges do not hear new evidence; they only review the initial case’s record.
  3. Written briefs: The appellant’s lawyer will submit a brief explaining the reason for the appeal and directing the appellate court toward the alleged errors. The appellee also writes a brief defending the court’s initial ruling.
  4. Oral argument: The appellant may also request to present an oral argument in person. The three judges on the panel will hear a 10 to 20-minute argument.
  5. Conference the case: The three judges will then review the records, the briefs, hear arguments, conduct researching into legal interpretations, and discuss their findings. The judges will affirm the decision of the lower court (with or without explanation) or reverse their decision. If reversed, the appellate court submits instructions on further action.

Appellate courts can only overturn cases when they find harmful errors. Minor errors that did not impact the initial ruling will not affect the appeal.

Legal counsel can help

Those facing a criminal trial or looking to appeal a conviction may want help from a local lawyer experienced with criminal defense. An attorney can help answer questions, assess the possibility of an appeal and spot errors that a court may overlook.

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