If you or a loved one has recently been sentenced for a crime, you may feel hopeless, like the case is over and there is nothing left that can be done. However, you may still be able to challenge your conviction using the criminal appeals process. This process can be very complex and it requires an experienced team of criminal appeal attorneys to get the best results.
Before we begin, it is important to think about your legal counsel. The process of appealing a conviction is complex and very difficult, so having an experienced team of lawyers on your side is critical to giving you the best chance of a good outcome.
It is not uncommon for people in prison to try to write their own legal appeals pro se (by themselves). Unfortunately, pro se appeals have a very low success rate. If an appeal is not formatted correctly, does not make the proper legal arguments, or is not sent to the right place or in a timely manner, many judges will simply reject the appeal. In fact, filing a criminal appeal pro se can even damage one’s case: if the arguments are made incorrectly, even the most skilled criminal defense attorney might not be able to fix those issues later on in the process.
Good criminal appeals attorneys are deeply familiar with the appellate process and can handle your case without making the types of mistakes that are common in pro se appeals.
Even if you cannot afford a skilled criminal defense firm like Kenny, Burns & McGill, you might be eligible for a free court-appointed attorney to help you make your appeal.
This article will answer some common questions about appeals before describing the process more specifically. Keep in mind that you have a limited amount of time to file appeals. If you need help appealing your case, DO NOT WAIT: call Kenny, Burns & McGill right away! Contact us here for more information.
An appeal is when a criminal defense defendant asks a higher court to review the decision of the lower court in search of legal errors that could have impacted the case’s outcome. An appeal can be filed only after a criminal defendant has been convicted and sentenced.
An appeal is not a retrial; it is simply a review of the original trial record by a more powerful court to make sure that the law was carried out correctly.
To understand the appeals process, it is necessary to first understand the American court system. Our courts are divided into state courts, which handle the vast majority of the country’s criminal and civil legal cases, and federal courts, which mainly deal with violations of federal law or the Constitution.
State courts are further broken down into three categories, each more powerful than the last: trial courts, the lowest type of court where the initial trial happens; appellate courts, the intermediate courts where the appeals process truly begins; and state supreme courts, the highest court in each state.
Every state has this three-tiered court system, but what each type of court is called can vary. In Pennsylvania, trial courts are called the Courts of Common Pleas, the appellate courts are the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court, and the state supreme court is called the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Federal courts have a similar three-tiered system, made up of district courts, circuit courts, and the United States Supreme Court. District courts are where civil and criminal trials regarding federal law are held. Circuit courts are the intermediate appellate courts which can review decisions made in District Courts.
The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the country – there are no more courts to appeal after this one. It is sometimes called “The Court of Last Resort.”
State supreme courts have the final say when it comes to ruling on their own state laws and state constitutions. However, if there is reason to believe that a case involves federal law – for example, if a right guaranteed to a person by the U.S. Constitution has been violated – then an appeal may be filed in the federal court system after the case goes through the state supreme court.
Federal appeals follow the same low-court to high-court system as state appeals; first an appeal must be sent to a district court, then the circuit court, and finally the Supreme Court of the United States.
Appeals are usually filed when a defendant is found guilty and there is reason to believe that the case could have been decided differently, if not for certain circumstances outside of the defendant’s control.
These circumstances may include:
Overall, if there is evidence to suggest that errors were made before or during your trial, it is a good idea to contact an experienced criminal defense firm right away.
There are three possible outcomes when appealing a criminal defense case to a higher court.
First, the court may deny the appeal. This means that the higher court believes that the lower court acted legally and that justice was served, and so the lower court’s verdict stands. The higher court has determined that any errors made during the trial were “harmless errors,” which are errors that do not affect the outcome of a case. If this happens, another appeal may be filed with the next highest court, if there is one.
Second, if the court grants the appeal, it may partially or completely reverse the lower court’s decision. This usually means a lighter sentence for the defendant, and some people may even regain their freedom immediately. This means that the higher court believes that the errors that occurred during the trial were “reversible errors,” which are errors so significant that the lower court’s verdict must be changed.
Third, if the court grants the appeal, it may call for a retrial. Like the previous potential outcome, this one also deals with reversible errors. The higher court believes that the lower court’s trial was so botched that the verdict cannot stand, and the whole trial must be redone. This new trial may lead to a positive or a negative outcome for the defendant; if the defendant does not like the result of the retrial either, they may file another appeal.
All criminal defendants convicted by a judge or by a jury at trial automatically have the right to appeal their convictions.
A defendant who was convicted through their own guilty plea does not automatically have the right to appeal their case. If an appeal is filed, the higher court must first grant an “allowance of appeal” before the appeal can be heard, which that court may or may not grant.
Fun Fact: In all but a few rare cases, the prosecutor may not appeal a “not guilty” verdict, as this would violate the Fifth Amendment’s “double jeopardy” clause!
If you believe you should appeal your conviction, you can (and should) begin the criminal appeal process immediately after your trial.
This is the very first possible route to changing the outcome of one’s criminal defense case. Immediately after being sentenced in Pennsylvania, the defendant has ten (10) days to file a Motion for Reconsideration. This is not technically an appeal, so Motions of Reconsideration are automatically allowed to come from any convicted defendants, even ones who pled guilty.
Motions of Reconsideration are optional, and a defendant can skip straight to the appeals process if they choose.
There are two main reasons to file a Motion of Reconsideration:
After filing this motion, a judge may do one of several things:
Bottom Line: If you want to ask your judge to reconsider your guilty verdict, a Motion of Reconsideration must be submitted, in writing, to the court where you were convicted within 10 days of that conviction.
To begin the criminal appeal process, a Notice of Appeal must be given to the trial court in which the defendant was convicted. The defendant has 30 days from the last part of their trial to file this notice.
In other words, if the defendant did not file a Motion of Reconsideration, then they have 30 days from the end of their trial to file the notice. If the defendant did file the motion, then depending on whether the judge accepted the motion, the defendant has 30 days from either their reconsideration hearing or the denial of their motion to file the Notice of Appeal.
At this point, the notice goes from the trial court to the next highest court, an appellate court. These courts decide all criminal appeals. If there is no reason for the appellate court to not grant an allowance of appeal, then the appealing process can begin in earnest.
It’s important to note that as soon as an appeal is filed, the sentence the defendant received is stayed, meaning that the punishments imposed by the judge are paused until the conclusion of the appeal. If the conviction is not overturned, the sentence will resume.
Bottom Line: If you want to appeal your conviction, you have 30 days from either your trial, your reconsideration hearing, or your denial of a reconsideration hearing to do so.
Once the appellate court receives the appeal, they review the case. They look at every piece of information that surrounded the trial, including pre- and post-trial motions, all evidence admitted to the court, and a direct transcript of the trial.
The appellate court then releases a “briefing schedule,” which informs all of the involved parties of when they must submit their various “briefs,” or legal documents. Briefs must be received from the judge who oversaw the trial, the prosecution (in Pennsylvanian criminal trials, the prosecution is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), and from the defendant.
The goal of the defense’s brief is to tell the appellate court what went wrong at their trial. These briefs must be powerful and persuasive; it is important to only include the top five or so reasons for the appeal, as excessively lengthy briefs are less likely to be looked at in-depth by the judges. The defendant and their legal counsel should be using the discovery and the notes of testimony from their trial in order to include as much specific information as possible.
Additionally, the defense’s brief should include past cases that were decided in a way that supports the defendant’s point. This lets the judges see which laws and precedents the defense thinks are relevant to the case.
At this point, the appellate court usually has three briefs: one from the judge, one from the defendant, and one from the prosecution. From here, the court may either decide the case based on these briefs and other documents from the trial, or they may order the defense and prosecution to have an oral argument in front of the court.
Sometimes the defense themselves get to decide whether or not to have an oral argument, which is a decision that must be made with care. An oral argument is very different from having the court decide based just on the documents, so it’s important to have an experienced defense attorney to know what the best option is for any particular appeal.
Bottom Line: Once your case is taken by the appellate court, you or your defense attorney must turn in all the relevant documents and evidence you have, if there are any that the trial court does not already have. The appellate court will release a briefing schedule to let you know when you need to turn in certain extra documents; it is critical for the best outcome of your case that these deadlines are met. You or your attorney will need to write a defense brief explaining exactly what went wrong at your original trial, and why the sentence you received should be changed or overturned. You or your attorney may need to prepare and present an oral argument.
If an appeal to the appellate court is denied or does not result in a favorable result for the defendant, it may be possible to continue appealing to higher courts.
Once again, the defendant has 30 days from the previous part of the trial to file a new Notice of Appeal with the appellate court, which then goes to the state supreme court.
A defendant is not automatically allowed to appeal a state supreme court. In order to appeal one of these courts, the court must grant an allowance of appeal. These appeals may be accepted if the appellate court made any significant errors, or if the point of law the defendant is arguing is interesting or important enough.
If the state supreme court decides to take the case, the defendant then has the right to argue the highest court in the state. Again, this requires the defense to write briefs about the case and trial, as well as potentially give an oral argument.
The state supreme court is the highest court in any given state, and is the absolute final arbiter on matters of state law and the state’s constitution. If the outcome of this appeal is unfavorable to the defendant, there are no more appeals to be made… unless the case deals with federal laws or the federal constitution in any way.
Bottom Line: To continue the appeals process after the appellate court, a Notice of Appeal must be filed with the appellate court within 30 days of either the end of the appellate hearings or the rejection of the appeal. If the state supreme court grants an allowance of appeal and agrees to hear the case, the defense must prepare various briefs and potentially an oral argument.
As stated above, if a case that has nothing to do with the federal government’s jurisdiction is turned away from or is settled disappointingly for the defendant by a state’s Supreme Court, there are no more appeals that can be made. If it is involved with federal law or the federal constitution, however, the defendant can begin to appeal the federal courts.
Appealing to the federal courts is very similar to appealing the state courts. After arguing the state supreme court, if the case is important enough, the defendant would be able to appeal their district court, then their circuit court, and finally the Supreme Court of the United States.
The time limits to submit a Notice of Appeal and the various briefs may vary depending on the specifics of the case, so it is critical that the defendant is partnered with an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows how to evaluate the situation.
If you’ve reached the end of the appeals process and are still stuck with a bad result, you’re not out of options yet. In states with Post-Conviction Relief Acts, such as Pennsylvania, you have the right to file a PCRA petition with the state.
Interested in knowing more about how we’ve helped real people with their appeals? Click here to read a true story of a man who was unjustly arrested by a judge, and how the skilled defense team at Kenny, Burns & McGill used the criminal appeal process to have his sentence reversed.
If you or a loved one are in trouble with the law, you can increase your chances of a good outcome by hiring an experienced criminal justice attorney as soon as possible. A skilled lawyer will be able to present your defense in the strongest possible way before you have been convicted, when your guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
After the trial, a person who has been convicted is guaranteed fewer rights, so it is important to hire the right attorney to get involved in your case right away. If you need an Appeals Lawyer, call or text the team at Kenny, Burns & McGill today! (215) 423-5500