Who Can Appeal a Criminal Conviction?

There are two aspects of a criminal conviction that give rise to the right to appeal: the conviction itself (whether or not you are found to be guilty of committing the crime) and the sentence (your punishment for being found guilty).  

If you have been convicted of a crime under criminal laws by either a judge or jury, you have a right to appeal the conviction. In some cases, a person may be convicted of a crime, but not believe that they have been wrongfully convicted. Instead, they may believe that they have been improperly or unfairly sentenced. In such instances, they may also have the right to appeal.

How Does An Appeal Work?

A criminal appeal asks a higher court to change the trial court's decision based on legal or procedural error. When you are convicted of a crime in a state trial court and seek to appeal, the next step is to ask the next highest court (most states call this an “appellate court”) to review the decision.

The appellate court only reviews the record and the evidence presented to the court in which the defendant was convicted to see if there are grounds to grant the appeal. Appeals can be granted as a whole, in part, or completely denied. If the appeal is granted, the appellate court may completely dismiss the charges or order a new trial.

When an appellate court denies an appeal, the defendant may then appeal the case to the state’s highest court. The state’s highest court does not have to review the appeal; it is completely discretionary.

The last option for appealing a state court conviction is to appeal to the federal court. Defendants who can present a federal issue, such as a violation of a fundamental right, may appeal to a federal court.

What Legal Errors are Grounds for Granting an Appeal?

There are many different ways that an appeal can be granted, leading to the conviction being overturned or dismissed, including:

  • Insufficient Evidence Against the Defendant: The evidence presented at trial does not meet the elements of the crime the defendant has been convicted of.
  • Improper was Instruction Given to the Jury: Jurors are given specific instructions they must strictly follow when reaching a verdict. Improper instruction may result in a new trial.
  • Juror Misconduct: This occurs when jurors act improperly, such as communicating with witnesses, using drugs or alcohol during trial and deliberations, or performing improper experiments to determine guilt.
  • Use of Illegally Obtained Evidence at Trial: The prosecution cannot use evidence that was attained in an illegal way.
  • Inadequate Representation for the Defendant: This occurs when attorney representing the defendant did a poor job. It should be shown that the outcome would have been different if not for the attorney’s actions or lack of actions.
  • Abuse of Discretion: This occurs where a judge improperly uses their power in either a jury trial or bench trial. If the improper use of power is found to have changed the outcome of the case, an appeal may be granted.
  • Newly Discovered Evidence: This occurs when evidence that supports a wrongful conviction is discovered. If the evidence was not reasonably available to the defendant during the trial, an appeal may be granted.

The criminal justice system is not perfect; its primary goal is that a defendant receives a fair trial.  This does not necessarily mean an error-free trial. Errors that do not have a major impact on the outcome of the defendant’s conviction are considered harmless, and will likely not result in the conviction being reversed or dismissed.

How Does My Plea Affect My Rights to an Appeal?

If you have been convicted and sentenced for a crime as a result of your own guilty plea, your right to appeal is limited. In some cases, it may be possible to submit a conditional plea bargain or a plea of “no contest”, which would allow you to appeal certain pre-trial issues. An example is where the trial court concluded that evidence cannot be used, even if the defendant believes it proves their innocence. Here, a conditional plea entered may allow the defendant to appeal the ruling regarding the evidence.

Are There any Alternatives to Filing an Appeal?

An alternative to filing an appeal is a post-trial motion filed with the court in which the conviction occurred. A post-trial motion basically asks the court to correct the error the defendant believes occurred, rather than have the appellate reverse the decision on appeal.

Appealing a case can consume more time and resources than post-trial motions. An advantage of post-trial motions is that trial courts would much rather fix their own errors rather than have the appellate court order a new trial because of the error.

On the other hand, a disadvantage of filing a post-trial motion is that there is a chance that the trial court could make more points against your position when addressing the motion. These could be used against you during an appeal, but if they help point out the trial court’s error, it could work in your favor.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help Understanding My Right to an Appeal?

A criminal defense attorney can advise you of your legal defenses to a crime in which you are facing, or your right to appeal a criminal conviction. If you are facing a criminal conviction, and want a new attorney for the purposes of appeal, you may be entitled to hire a new lawyer near you.