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Many defendants who lose at trial in their federal criminal case see an appeal as a way to get a second chance at freedom. They often make the mistake of viewing an appeal as a way to try a new strategy for their case or get a second chance to convince a judge and/or jury of evidence that shows they are innocent. A federal criminal appeal is much more like a technical and legal examination of issues that came up at trial. The defendant is trying to show the panel of judges deciding his appeal that the court made a mistake or allowed the prosecutor to do something impermissible that made it more likely that the defendant was convicted of the crime at trial. Here are some of the important steps in a federal criminal appeal and how a lawyer can help you navigate them.
A federal criminal appeal does not start until the defendant has a judgment entered on the record. Then, the clock starts ticking for the defendant to file a federal criminal appeal. Another way the defendant can proceed is to challenge his sentence and file a motion to have it reduced or improved in some way. The federal criminal appeal process is directed towards overturning the guilty conviction itself.
Many non-lawyers are intimidated at first by the short timeframe in which a notice of appeal must be filed. This is not a difficult task to do because it is not a full legal argument about why the conviction is overturned. It simply gets the case number opened in the appellate court and triggers a case schedule. In the appellant’s opening brief, the defendant’s lawyer can make arguments about why he is appealing the conviction.
In order for a defendant to be able to argue about an issue that he feels negatively and wrongly influenced the conviction in a trial, the issue must have been put on the record through his lawyer’s objection when it occurred. This is called preservation of the issue for appeal. The panel of judges will ensure that the issue was preserved before analyzing whether the court below made an error.
In addition, the panel of judges must hold that the trial court made a serious error on the issue for it to rise to the level of overturning a defendant’s conviction. This means that if something was harmless or could not have possibly made a difference in the case, then it would not be a good reason for the panel of judges to allow the appeal and overturn the ruling.
Most of the progress of a federal criminal appeal is done via briefing by the parties. The panel of judges also has clerks who research the legal issues raised. Oral argument can be permitted, but sometimes the appellate judges will decide the outcome of the case based solely on written arguments from the parties. The judges may ask the lawyers questions during their oral arguments to clarify any concepts.
The ordeal is not necessarily over when the defendant wins on appeal. The circuit court can grant a new trial for the defendant, which means that all the evidence will be put on again. The defendant could end up being convicted a second time around. A new trial is not a guarantee that the defendant will walk away from the conviction.
You do not have to stay with the same firm or attorney who tried your criminal case in the district court. Some attorneys handle federal criminal appeals as their main practice and can be a good advocate for your case because they understand the appeal process so well.