Step one: Find someone who will fight for you.
A guilty verdict at trial seems like the end of what has likely been a long, and difficult process. The period awaiting trial may feel interminable; what happens after is sometimes a longer road with even more unknowns. But there is sometimes post-conviction relief.
The American criminal justice system affords certain potential remedies, one of which is the appeals process. An appeal can, in some cases, reverse a court decision.
What is an Appellate Court?
The appellate courts are known as courts of errors. They are not the deciders of facts; an appeal doesn’t mean there’s a new chance for you or your lawyer to present evidence, although there may be some exceptions. What these courts do is review the lower court’s decision and determine whether errors were committed by that court.
When errors are found, the appeals court then determines whether they were significant enough to have altered the outcome. There may be errors, but ones that wouldn’t alter the outcome are generally not considered.
Is an Appeal Guaranteed?
Although most cases afford at least one chance to appeal the decision, this right is limited. As important is whether there is the foundation to have your case heard by the appellate court.
Appeals are not always heard, even if you’re given the right to an appeal. Arguments must have been made in the lower court that brought the errors to light. Occasionally an appeals court will review errors that were not presented at trial, but generally, the lower court must have been given the opportunity to correct those errors, and then failed to do so.
What Happens if I Win my Appeal?
If significant and altering errors were found in the lower court’s decision, then the court of appeals will offer its written opinion and reverse the lower court’s decision. The opinion is a document that not only explains why the court believes the decision should be overturned, but the legal basis for that opinion.
The case is then remanded to the lower court, which has the duty to comply with the appellate court’s opinion.
In some cases, the prosecution will appeal to a higher court, in an attempt to gain a favorable opinion that supersedes the first appellate court’s opinion. This can be a tangled, and complex process.
What Happens if I Lose My Appeal?
If the appellate court does not find errors that contributed to the lower court’s decision, the process is similar, but with a different outcome. The court will give a written opinion that explains why it is in agreement and the legal basis for that opinion.
Some cases allow more than one chance at an appeal. If the first appeal is not successful, then it is sometimes possible to have a case reviewed by higher and higher appellate courts, ending with the U.S. Supreme Court. This is rare, but it is possible.
Your court case is unlike any other, and your future depends on the outcome. Each step of the process is important. If a guilty verdict was handed down, all is not necessarily lost.
Your appeal is likely the most important document you’ll ever need, and arguing it should rest in the care of attorneys with the experience to protect your rights.