In South Carolina, individuals generally have a right to appeal criminal convictions directly after sentencing. This right to be heard in an appeal is only limited by narrow filing deadlines: notices of appeal must be filed within a matter of days after sentencing (or from other order to be appealed). In addition to ordinary appeals, individuals can pursue state civil post-conviction relief and federal habeas corpus actions.
Structure of the Courts of South Carolina
The type of trial court in which a case is heard will determine the appropriate appellate court. Criminal trial courts in South Carolina include Magistrate Courts, Municipal Courts, Courts of General Sessions, and the Federal District Court for the District of South Carolina. The particular criminal charge generally determines where the charge is brought. State law charges with lower maximum penalties are brought in Magistrate and Municipal Courts. More serious state law charges are brought in the Courts of General Sessions (the Circuit Court criminal divisions). Federal charges are brought in federal district court.
Criminal appeals from Magistrate and Municipal Courts are heard in the Courts of General Sessions of the Circuit Courts. Appeals from the Courts of General Sessions are made to the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Appeals from the S.C. Court of Appeals are made to the S.C. Supreme Court. Where issues of federal law are being appealed, appeal from the S.C. Supreme Court can be made to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Appeals from the Federal District Court for the District of S.C. go first to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After conviction and sentencing, a criminal defendant can appeal their case directly to an appeals court. In this sort of direct appeal, the defendant will be able to argue that the trial court made clear errors of fact or wrongly applied the law. An appeal is not a new trial, even in appeals from Magistrate and Municipal Courts to the Circuit Courts (which normally sit as trial courts). Appeals are made on the basis of the facts presented at trial through the documents provided and the transcript of the testimony given, and appellate courts generally cannot reverse findings of fact absent clear evidence on the record to the contrary. Arguments in appeals are generally limited to those made at trial (or in appeals to higher appellate courts, to the arguments made in the last appellate court). Arguments that should have been made that were not are generally not heard.
In addition to post-sentencing appeals, direct appeals can also be made by either the defense or the prosecution after most orders profoundly affecting the merits of the case. These appeals are called interlocutory appeals. Probably the most common issue in criminal interlocutory appeals is whether a ruling on a Fourth Amendment motion to suppress evidence was rightly decided (the Fourth Amendment prohibits certain police conduct, and courts must disallow evidence found in the course of illegal police conduct).
Post-Conviction Relief and Habeas
In addition to direct appeals, individuals can also pursue, and have a longer period to pursue civil post-conviction relief and habeas claims. South Carolina’s post-conviction relief scheme allows individuals convicted of a crime to apply for relief in a circuit court on several grounds including: (a) the conviction was in violation of either the U.S. or S.C. Constitution, (b) the court was without jurisdiction, (c) the sentence exceeded the maximum allowed by statute, (d) material facts, not heard at trial, exist that render the conviction unjust, (e) the individual is being held improperly past his sentence, and any other proper ground.
Even given all of those possible grounds, the most common ground for post-conviction relief is claims of “ineffective assistance of counsel” (a claim rising to constitutional significance). Ineffective assistance is simply when defense counsel at trial did or did not do something that actually impairs the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Despite the broad name, ineffective assistance provides a relatively narrow grounds for relief. Defendants must prove both :
- that trial counsel’s defense was deficient (that the representation fell below that required by a reasonable lawyer) and
- that had the defendant had effective assistance, the defendant would have had a reasonable probability of a different outcome.
In addition to the state law scheme, individuals can pursue a federal habeas corpus claim, whether the underlying conviction was a state or federal charge. The grounds for relief are generally similar as under South Carolina’s post-conviction relief system.