03 Aug 23

Understanding Federal Criminal Appeals

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Last Updated on: 4th August 2023, 01:08 am

Everyone knows what a trial is and how it works. Even a person who has never been in trouble can learn the basics of trials from the many courtroom dramas on television and movies. Any novice can name the major players such as judge, jury, defense attorney, and prosecutor. There are objections to raise and witnesses to question. Not everyone is as familiar with the appeals process, however. What is an appeal? Does everyone get one? The federal criminal appeals process is complicated and confusing. It isn’t depicted in the media or news nearly as often as trials but even a layperson can understand the basics.

What is a Federal Criminal Appeal?
An appeal is a legal process that reviews a trial, verdict, and sentencing for mistakes. A federal criminal appeal is an appeal of a federal criminal trial verdict. The criminal conviction and sentence are reviewed by a higher court to ensure every letter of the law is represented correctly. There are two high courts which review federal cases; the United States Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. Contrary to popular belief, there is no constitutional right to an appeal, and they may be denied for any number of reasons.

When is an Appeal Necessary?
Anyone who has lost a federal criminal case can feel it is necessary to appeal the courts decision. If they had an attorney to represent them, they may be advised of some infraction of their rights, or a legal misstep which upset the verdict. In which case, the attorney would file an appeal as soon as the final verdict is issued. If no attorney will take the case on appeal, the defendant may represent themselves.

The Difference Between the United States Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court
A lower court, which is any court in which an original decision was made, sends their appeals to the United States Courts of Appeals. It reviews judgments from lower courts, also called district courts, in their corresponding circuits. The highest tier of courts is the Supreme Court. If a case has exhausted all other court appeals, the Supreme Court is the last stop.

What it Isn’t: A Retrial
A lot of people think an appeal is the same as a retrial. Not so. In a retrial a new jury hears the evidence and decides a verdict just like in the original case. An appeal is a sort of trial of the trial. It is a concentrated review of the trial proceedings in search of proof of a legal error or misuse of law. There is no chance to reopen evidence or reintroduce the facts of the trial. An appeal has nothing to do with the facts of the case.

The Federal Criminal Appeals Process is Slow
The federal courts are crowded and the process of going over every legal claim in a case is intricate work. A federal criminal appellate procedure can take several months, most take years. Technology has improved the speed of appellate courts in recent years by accepting electronic briefs and endless access to legal research, but it is still a difficult, time-consuming task. A judge must read, research, and deliberate on each argument in the hundreds of federal criminal appeals they receive each year.

On-The-Briefs Resolution
By far, most federal criminal appeals are resolved without ever going into a courtroom. The judge decides based on what is contained in the legal briefs. The legal briefs are known as principle briefs or opening briefs and they set forth the facts of the case without bias. A succinct argument on the exact legal errors made in district court. Briefs are very detailed with exact citations and accompanying transcripts and evidentiary reports.

Federal criminal appeals are complex procedures which are hard to understand for anyone without a legal background. Reversals are rare, even for those cases with clear issues. There are also federal criminal cases won each year. Knowing how the process works is the first step in a successful appeal.