29 Nov 23

Grounds for Appealing Your Federal Conviction or Sentence

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Last Updated on: 14th December 2023, 07:29 pm

Grounds for Appealing Your Federal Conviction or Sentence

If you’ve been convicted of a federal crime, you may be wondering if you have grounds to appeal. The appeals process can seem complicated — full of legal mumbo-jumbo that’s hard to understand. But don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you here in plain language so you know what your options are.

An appeal isn’t about re-trying your whole case again. Instead, you’re asking a higher court to review what happened at your original trial to see if any serious mistakes were made that affected the outcome. If so, you could get your conviction overturned or your sentence reduced.

Main Grounds for a Federal Appeal

There are a few key reasons you may be able to appeal a federal conviction or sentence:

  • Errors in legal procedure
  • Insufficient evidence
  • Unreasonable or excessive sentence
  • Ineffective assistance from your defense lawyer
  • Prosecutorial misconduct
  • New evidence coming to light

Let’s break these down one-by-one…

Errors in Legal Procedure

If serious mistakes were made in how your trial was conducted, that could be grounds for an appeal. For example, important evidence might have been improperly admitted or kept out, the jury received incorrect instructions on the law from the judge, or procedural rules weren’t properly followed.

The appeals court will look at whether errors substantially affected your case — did they potentially impact the outcome or your right to a fair trial? If so, your conviction or sentence may get overturned. But minor technical errors usually aren’t enough to win an appeal.

Insufficient Evidence

Another basis for appeal is if there wasn’t enough evidence presented at trial for the jury to reasonably have found you guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The appeals court will look at the trial record and decide if the conviction was justified or if the evidence was too weak.

For example, maybe the prosecution’s key witness wasn’t credible or their testimony had major inconsistencies. Or perhaps the physical evidence didn’t actually link you to the crime. In cases like that, you may have a solid argument that you were wrongly convicted.

Unreasonable or Excessive Sentence

You can also appeal if your sentence seems unfairly long or doesn’t fit the crime. The appeals court will look at whether the punishment falls within the federal sentencing guidelines given your criminal history and the nature of the offense. If your sentence is way above what the guidelines recommend without good reason, the appeals court may decide it’s excessive and lower it.

This can happen if the judge miscalculated the guidelines range or if they imposed consecutive sentences instead of concurrent ones without justification. Sentences that seem really disproportionate compared to the crime itself are also targets for appeals.

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Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Many appeal claims argue that the defense lawyer screwed up in some way that hurt the case — also known as “ineffective assistance of counsel.” This can happen if your attorney didn’t properly investigate the case, failed to make key objections, didn’t prepare adequately for trial, or made serious strategic errors in defending you.

To win this type of appeal, you’ll have to show two things:

  1. Your lawyer’s performance fell below reasonable professional standards
  2. Their mistakes negatively impacted your case in a meaningful way

If you can prove both prongs, you may get a new trial or at least a reduced sentence. But just minor mistakes by your lawyer that didn’t really affect the outcome usually won’t cut it.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

If the prosecution did something super inappropriate that prejudiced you, like hiding exculpatory evidence, knowingly relying on false testimony, or making improper comments to the jury, that could also give you grounds for appeal under the umbrella of “prosecutorial misconduct.”

These types of actions undermine the fairness of the proceedings and your right to due process. But again, the misconduct has to be serious enough to potentially impact the results of the trial. Harmless errors don’t typically justify reversal on appeal.

New Exculpatory Evidence

Finally, if significant new evidence comes to light after your conviction showing you’re innocent or deserve a lesser sentence, you can appeal on those grounds. Common examples include:

  • DNA or other forensic evidence exonerating you
  • A credible alibi witness suddenly coming forward
  • Proof that a key prosecution witness lied on the stand
  • Evidence of misconduct by prosecutors or police

This new evidence can form the basis of an appeal requesting a new trial or a reduced sentence. But you’ll need to show that the evidence is truly compelling and likely would have changed the outcome if known at the time of trial.

What’s the Standard of Review?

A key thing to understand is that appeals courts give a lot of deference to the lower court’s decisions. They don’t just redo the whole trial or re-weigh all the evidence. Rather, they look for clear and obvious mistakes or abuses of discretion that violate your substantial rights.

So the bar is quite high, and appellate judges give the benefit of the doubt to the trial court. They’ll only reverse a conviction or sentence if they have a firm conviction that a serious miscarriage of justice occurred.

What’s the Process for Filing a Federal Appeal?

If you want to appeal your federal conviction or sentence, you must generally file a written notice of appeal in the district court within 14 days of the judgment being entered. This sets the appeals process in motion.

You’ll then have 40 days to file your full appellate brief detailing all the issues you want the appeals court to review and your arguments why your conviction or sentence should be overturned/reduced. The government gets 30 days to file a response, and you can file an optional reply within 14 days after that.

Oral arguments may also be scheduled where your lawyer gets to argue your case before a panel of appellate judges. They’ll pepper both sides with tough questions!

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After considering all the submitted briefs and oral arguments, the appeals judges will issue a written decision explaining their ruling and if you’ve won a reversal, remand, or reduction of your sentence. This can take many months or even over a year as the courts have huge caseloads.

What Are Your Chances on Appeal?

I’ll be straight with you – winning a federal criminal appeal is an uphill battle. Nationwide, only around 12% of appeals result in reversals or remands. So the odds aren’t great.

Much depends on the specifics of your case and the strength of the issues raised. But appeals courts tend to err on the side of upholding convictions and sentences unless clear injustice is shown. They don’t like to second-guess trial judges and juries unless absolutely necessary.

Still, if you have strong arguments that your rights were violated or the trial was fundamentally unfair, it’s worth appealing. You have to try all your legal options, and appeals do sometimes succeed, resulting in overturned convictions, retrials, or reduced prison time.

Should You Get an Appellate Lawyer?

Trying to handle a federal criminal appeal alone without a lawyer will be extremely difficult. The appeals process has complex rules and procedures, and requires nuanced legal arguments citing case law precedents. So having an experienced federal appellate attorney on your side is highly recommended.

Specialist appellate lawyers know how to identify the best issues to raise that might convince appeals judges to rule in your favor. They also know how to craft persuasive arguments tailored to that audience. Plus, federal appeals often involve in-person oral arguments where lawyers can really advocate for their clients.

If you can’t afford a private appellate lawyer, consider applying for assistance from the Federal Defenders Program which provides free representation to qualifying defendants. But having some legal expertise guiding you through the process is wise.

Takeaways on Federal Appeals

Appealing a federal conviction or sentence is no easy feat, but strong grounds like procedural errors, insufficient evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, or new exculpatory evidence can give you a fighting chance. Identify any such issues in your own case and consult with an appellate attorney to discuss your options.

Though the odds aren’t ever in your favor, sometimes appeals do result in overturned convictions, retrials, or reduced sentences if clear injustices occurred. It’s typically worth appealing if you have arguable issues to raise – you have to exhaust all your legal remedies before accepting defeat.

I know the appeals process seems daunting, but try not to get discouraged. Take it one step at a time, know your rights, and lean on your appellate lawyer’s expertise to give yourself the best shot possible. You never know – you could end up being one of the lucky 12% who win reversals! So hang in there.


Federal Sentencing Guidelines – 18 U.S. Code § 3553
Overview of the Federal Court System – Justice 101
Federal Defenders Program