Appealing a federal criminal case is fraught with complex issues, but the first thing to know is that an appeal isn’t a retrial. You don’t get the chance to present new evidence or change your defense strategy. Appeals are legal vehicles to challenge the legal steps taken during a trial. If mistakes were made in the course of your arrest and trial in legal procedures, they could result in your conviction being overturned.
What Is an Appeal in Federal Court?
An appeal is a legal motion to overturn a court decision based on the fact that improprieties occurred that violated the defendant’s rights. This has nothing to do with incompetent counsel, new evidence or changes in witness testimony. Appeals are made when the defense team charges that a judge, prosecutor, juror or law enforcement officer acted improperly. The reasons for an appeal include:
- Juror Misconduct
If a juror is discovered to be prejudiced against the defendant or bribed to convict the defendant, it’s strong grounds for an appeal. Other violations include jurors discussing the case with witnesses, members of the press, prosecutors, attorneys or other jurors outside the deliberation room during the trial.
- Improper Jury Instructions
Jurors are briefed by the judge on many issues that include what is needed to convict a defendant and what charges and sentences can be imposed. If the judge doesn’t give the jury proper instructions for the case, this could be grounds for an appeal.
- False Arrest
Law enforcement can’t arrest anyone on speculation or purely circumstantial evidence. Even if an investigation proves guilt after an arrest has been made, convictions can be overturned if the arrest was improper. Warrants or compelling circumstances are necessary to make an arrest.
- Improper Admission or Exclusion of Evidence
Evidence that is obtained without a warrant or was planted by someone to frame a defendant can result in a conviction being overturned. Excluding evidence that favors the defendant can also be grounds for an appeal. Judges hold hearings at the start of trial to rule on what evidence is admissible and what is not.
- Lack of Evidence
Some crimes are so heinous or the defendants are so disliked that juries convict them without strong evidence. Usually, a judge rules that there is insufficient evidence to convict and dismisses the case. If the judge rules that the case should go forward, there could be grounds for an appeal due to insufficient evidence.
There are special circumstances where an error can be ruled a Harmless Error or Invited Error, and these do not meet the conditions necessary to overturn a conviction. In the cases where the judge is involved in misconduct or improper behavior, it’s necessary to object to the error during the trial to give the judge an opportunity to correct the mistake.
Preserving Errors for Appeal
If a judge makes a mistake during the course of the trial, it’s critical for the defense attorney to object to the error in order to use the error as grounds for an appeal. The reasoning behind this requirement is that objections give judges a chance to correct their mistakes since the goal of all legal proceedings is justice.
During the appeal, judges can rule on the grounds for an appeal in the following ways:
- Harmless Errors: These are errors that didn’t affect the case’s outcome and are not cause for overturning a judgment.
- Invited Errors: These errors are rulings or actions that the defense asks the judge to make or implement. The defense asked for the ruling or action, so it can’t be used to overturn a conviction
- Plain Errors: These are also known as fundamental errors, and if proven, they can be used to overturn a conviction.
- Manifest Errors: These errors are so egregious that they are grounds for vacating a conviction. The errors are “obvious and indisputable” and clearly violate the defendant’s rights.
It’s important to hire a competent attorney for any federal trial. It might seem ridiculous to look for ways to overturn a case in the middle of a trial, but a competent attorney always keeps these opportunities in mind to preserve errors for possible appeals. Objecting to what seems like an error gives the courts a chance to self-correct improprieties. Failure to object to an impropriety is viewed the same as stipulating that no error occurred.