When the verdict and sentenced are handed down on a defendant after their criminal appeal, you might think that they are shipped off to their respective prison cell, left alone to serve out their time as ordered. Sometimes that happens; however, very often, defendants who are convicted of crimes and sentenced will pursue an appeal. These are usually reserved for very serious crimes, as they tend to carry the highest prison sentences – think of things like capital murder, serious drug crimes, or sexual offenses.
In order for an appeal to succeed, and result in a new trial or acquittal, there must be a firm showing of harmful error. Sometimes the trial court can err, but the result is harmless – or without the error the result would not have changed. Appellate courts do not like to change the ruling, preferring stability and predictability in the justice system, but if there are certain problems with what occurred in the lower court, it is possible.
One ground for appeal would be if the trial court made a serious error law, called a plain error. This kind of error would affect the defendant’s rights, and notably, it does not need to be brought to the attention of the judge during trial. An example of this kind of error is when the judge chooses the wrong sentence in significant excess of sentencing guidelines without articulating a good reason why.
Another common reason defendants appeal is for an insufficient weight of evidence, although this is much more difficult to argue than plain error. An appellate court is able only to review the record, including whatever evidence was admitted in court. They cannot hear the testimony, observe the demeanor of the witnesses or defendant, and therefore are not in a great position to determine the weight of the evidence. However, DNA evidence has been a useful tool in overturning convictions based on insufficient weight of evidence.
A ground that is also common in civil cases can be used to appeal the verdict of a criminal trial – abuse of discretion. Judges are given vast discretion in determining many aspects of a case. Many times, it has to do with whether evidence is let in, or whether an objection is overruled or sustained. If a judge wrongfully allowed evidence to be excluded that it was an abuse of his or her discretion, the appellate court can sometimes remand a case to the lower court for another trial that is inclusive of the evidence.
Far and away, the most common reason defendants appeal case is because of their claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Each defendant has a 6th Amendment right to a competent attorney – otherwise, they are deemed not to have had a fair trial. The test is whether the defendant’s lawyer’s behavior so undermined the functioning of the judicial process that the trial should not be relied upon as having a just result. The inquiry is whether there was a fair trial as a result, not necessarily whether the attorney was ineffective per se. His or her behavior must be directly tied to the outcome of the trial.
Appeals can take years. Many defendants sentenced to death languish on death row as their appeals wind their way through the courts – up and down and sometimes even back up again. Some of our most important laws are made in the Supreme Court. The Miranda rights required to be read to you upon arrest are the result of a Supreme Court criminal appeal case. Criminal appeals create law, and as time-consuming and lengthy as they can be, they are an integral part of the criminal justice system in the United States.