Sometimes appellate lawyers have a hard time getting clients to understand jurisprudence as it relates to moving forward with a case. There are instances when a client might want to file an appeal, without fully understanding the different outcomes that are possible. The reality is that winning an appeal does not always yield the anticipated relief or desired results.
What most clients imagine will happen is that an appeal will be granted that results in an acquittal due to insufficient evidence or some other legal problem that exists in the case. They often hope that the conviction will be vacated by the appellate court and all charges will be dismissed. While there is a possibility that this scenario will play out, it’s not something that happens with any level of frequency. In fact, it’s fair to say that all charges are rarely dismissed.
The reason why it’s so common for clients to have this idealized version of reality in their mind is because there isn’t always a clear understanding of why the appellate court exists. It’s important to clarify that the appellate process is for the purpose of identifying trial errors and it does not provide an opportunity to retry the case or submit new information. What the appellate court will assess is whether errors such as incorrect jury instructions or any other procedural violation took place in the district court. The facts of the case are already set in stone and will not change during the appeal. That simply is not the purpose of an appeal.
In the event that an error or multiple errors resulted in the appellate court reversing a conviction, the result will more than likely be a new trial. This essentially provides an opportunity to have a trial that’s absent of prior errors made by the district court. When a new trial is granted, the client is in the same position as before. There’s also a good chance that the case will be tried in the same court. Yes, there are benefits associated with having a new trial. However, it’s important to understand that a new trail means you are starting from scratch.
Optimism is important and counsel should anticipate and work towards a different result than what was achieved in the first trial. Nevertheless, from a statistical point of view, there’s a good chance that the second trial will have the same outcome as the first trial. On rare occasions, the government decides not to try the case again, which can happen for a variety of different reasons. It’s worth noting that there’s also the possibility of receiving a plea offer that’s better than what may have been available during the first trial, which is certainly of great value and should be considered a win.
Another positive note is the potential for a motion to suppress evidence that was a critical part of why a conviction was won in the first trial. There have been many cases where the suppression of evidence changed the outcome of the case the second time around, which is truly considered a victory. While there are often hopes that this will be the outcome, it certainly isn’t something that happens frequently. The bottom line is that all parties involved should understand the potential outcomes and what’s likely to happen during the appellate process. This starts with knowing what a federal criminal appeal examines and the different scenarios that might occur if it’s granted. It’s a matter of making sure everyone is informed and setting realistic expectations.
While some might say that it’s always prudent to appeal a conviction, that’s not true or realistic. There are many instances when it simply does not make sense to move forward with an appeal, especially when there were no errors at the district court that need to be corrected. After all, that is the purpose of the appellate court. Although it’s sometimes difficult to communicate this information to a client, it’s often necessary.