25 Sep 23

What is the likelihood of a conviction being overturned?

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Last Updated on: 26th September 2023, 05:24 pm

What is the Likelihood of a Conviction Being Overturned?

If you or a loved one have been wrongly convicted of a crime, you may be considering an appeal. But what are the chances it will result in the conviction being overturned? The likelihood depends on many factors.

While exact statistics are hard to come by, studies estimate only around 10-20% of criminal convictions are reversed on appeal. The reversal rate is likely even lower for minor misdemeanors. For civil case appeals, some estimates put the reversal rate at around 30-40%.

This article provides an overview of the criminal and civil appeal success rates and the key factors that impact whether appellate courts overturn lower court decisions.

Why Are Most Criminal Convictions Upheld?

There are a few main reasons why 80% or more of criminal convictions are affirmed on appeal:

  • Appellate courts give deference to findings of fact and credibility determinations made by juries and trial judges.
  • Alleged procedural errors must be substantial to warrant reversal.
  • The appeals court does not retry the entire case, but looks for specific legal errors.
  • The burden of proof is on the appellant to show clear error.

Given these high barriers, appellate judges are inclined to uphold most convictions rather than second-guess the lower court’s judgment and overturn jury verdicts.

Common Grounds for Overturning Convictions

While most appeals fail, convictions do get overturned in some cases. The most common reasons are:

  • Unreasonable verdict – Appellate court finds no reasonable jury could have convicted based on the evidence.
  • Improper legal rulings – Trial judge made incorrect rulings on admissibility of evidence, jury instructions, etc.
  • Prosecutorial misconduct – Prosecutor engaged in improper conduct that violated defendant’s rights.
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel – Defense lawyer failed to provide competent representation.
  • Bias – Evidence that jury or judge was biased against the defendant.

While these types of errors do lead to some overturned convictions, they must be sufficiently serious and prejudicial to warrant reversal.

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Factors That Increase Likelihood of Reversal

Certain factors raise the odds of an appeal resulting in a conviction being overturned. These include:

  • Weak underlying evidence – Conviction was based on limited physical evidence and eyewitness testimony.
  • Harsher sentence – Longer prison terms are more likely to get overturned.
  • Sympathetic defendant – Young, mentally ill or severely impaired defendants.
  • Serious procedural errors – Major issues like suppressed evidence or lack of key experts.
  • Inexperienced trial lawyers – Mistakes by public defenders or court-appointed counsel.

While not a guarantee, cases with characteristics like these tend to have slightly higher reversal rates on appeal.

Overturning Civil Case Verdicts

For civil lawsuits, research suggests appeals courts overturn jury verdicts in about 36% of cases. Key reasons civil verdicts get reversed include:

  • Jury awarded excessive or inadequate damages.
  • Lack of substantial evidence to support verdict.
  • Judge gave improper instructions to the jury.
  • Key evidence was wrongly excluded or admitted.
  • Jury selection process was flawed or biased.

However, appeals courts still defer to the jury’s findings in most civil cases. Plaintiffs face the burden of showing clear legal errors warranting reversal.

How Case Type Impacts Reversal Rates

Another factor impacting reversal rates is the type of case being appealed. Studies show:

  • Drug convictions have below-average reversal rates.
  • Sexual assault convictions have above-average reversal rates.
  • Business and corporate verdicts get overturned more often than personal injury verdicts.

Cases with lots of publicity and public outrage are also more prone to reversal. Judges may feel extra pressure to double check the verdict in highly publicized trials.

Does Defense Counsel Impact Reversal Odds?

Does having a private defense attorney versus a public defender affect conviction reversal odds? Some research suggests:

  • Public defenders gain acquittals and reversals at lower rates compared to private counsel.
  • Public defenders tend to have less litigation resources to pursue appeals vigorously.
  • However, PDs who specialize exclusively in appeals achieve higher reversal rates.

Overall, private appellate attorneys appear to secure reversals somewhat more often. But skilled, experienced public defenders can still effectively overturn convictions.

How Do Appellate Judges’ Politics Play a Role?

Studies show a judge’s political leanings impact outcomes. Key findings on the role of politics include:

  • Liberal judges are more likely to overturn convictions, especially in civil rights and free speech cases.
  • Conservative judges tend to uphold more convictions and police conduct.
  • Judicial panels with more ideologically uniform judges reach more politically predictable outcomes.

So the makeup of appellate panels does significantly influence rulings on upholding or overturning lower court decisions.

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What Are the Odds of Overturning Specific Convictions?

Estimated reversal rates for some specific conviction types are:

  • Murder – 19%
  • Sexual assault – 24%
  • Child pornography – 11%
  • Larceny/theft – 12%
  • Drug trafficking – 8%
  • Weapons charges – 16%

Again, minor misdemeanors often have single digit reversal rates. But for major felonies, the chances of getting convictions overturned hovers around 10-20% overall based on aggregate statistics.

Overturning a Wrongful Conviction

What if you or your loved one are factually innocent and wrongly convicted? Does actual innocence increase the odds of reversal?

Unfortunately, true innocence claims are very hard to prove in appeals. Courts assume the jury got it right unless glaring new evidence of innocence emerges. Mere doubt about guilt is not enough.

While rare, DNA and other scientific evidence conclusively proving innocence does occasionally result in reversals. But wrongful convictions are still painfully hard to overturn based on just innocence claims.

Talk to an Appellate Lawyer About Your Odds

Every case has unique factors that may improve or reduce reversal odds. Talk to an experienced appeals lawyer to get an honest assessment of your chances based on the specifics of your case. With strong legal arguments and skillful presentation, an unjust conviction can potentially be overturned.