How to Appeal Criminal Convictions

A defendant can request an appeal at the conclusion of their trial in the event a guilty verdict is returned. In essence, an appeal is a request to a higher court to review and change the decision of a lower court. Appealing a conviction, however, is a very different body of law, which is best handled by an attorney experienced and actively practicing appellate law. Typically, an appeal can occur immediately after the final verdict is read, and in turn, individuals that were previously free while awaiting and during trial will most likely be allowed to remain free pending the appeal.

Time Limits for Filing an Appeal

There are, however, strict time limits on filing appeals following a conviction, which is typically less than ten days later. Appeals may take a period of several months before they occur, which provides time for each party to obtain a complete transcript of the prior trial, as well as prepare for appellate court. To appeal, defendants must file notice of appeal, and in turn, obtain a copy of the court transcript, which is expensive, but provided at no cost to indigent defendants.

Appeals courts do not hear new evidence or testimony, but rather, they rule in favor of the current verdict or against it according to the previous court's adherence to the law. To argue their concerns constructively, each party submits an appellate brief to the appeals courts that cite specific examples from the trial transcript, as well as past legal and court precedents that might invalidate the verdict in the case. After filing the written briefs, both sides' legal counsel can orally argue their contentions in a hearing in front of the appeals court, albeit within a relatively short time limit. After the oral arguments in appellate courts, an appellate court will only reverse a previous court's decision, if:

  • The previous court made an error of law that seriously affected the outcome of a case, and a conviction will be overturned
  • The previous court did not adhere to the laws during sentencing, and in turn, the appellate court will send the case back for resentencing

Writs and Overturning Criminal Convictions

Defendants may seek writs, or orders from a higher court to a lower authority, from an appellate court. In the event an individual cannot challenge their conviction via an appeal, a writ may be the best remedy, which will assert something occurred during the trial proceedings that prevented a fair trial for the defendant. Typically, appeals are limited to one, but an individual may file any number of writs, which are typically heard much more quickly than appeals.

The most common writ, known as the Great writ, is the writ of habeas corpus. Writs of habeas corpus seek relief from a higher authority or court, which may be relief from any number of matters including poor incarceration conditions, reduction of bail, speedier arraignments, denial of a trial by jury, or some other condition that prevented the convicted individual from receiving a fair trial.

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