The federal criminal appeal process has promise for the innocent. There are far more tools in the federal system to correct the wrongs. The state courts can be pretty inflexible when it comes to appeals. In federal courts, you have a range of motions that can be filed to obtain relief even after a verdict and even many years later. The beauty of the federal court system is that it is designed to facilitate justice rather than to adhere dogmatically to procedure like the state courts.
Appealing a Federal Criminal Conviction
There are many aspects of an appeal that occur before the case is ultimately transferred to the higher court. If you neglect to hire quality trial counsel to represent you, don’t expect to get much leverage on a direct appeal.
A direct appeal is chiefly concerned with the issues that your trial counsel had preserved on the record. If they had failed in any manner, most of these errors must be rectified in a different kind of appeal called a collateral appeal.
A collateral appeal is like a direct appeal, except it is more specifically designed to bring up matters that are outside the trial record. Any errors committed by your trial attorney are most often considered here. Any new evidence in the case, witnesses, or issues that were not previously argued for relief must be brought up in this post-conviction process.
Federal Habeas Corpus
The post-conviction process where you have the opportunity to mend mistakes with time is called habeas corpus. This process allows federal prisoners to obtain remedy for fundamental errors rooted in constitutional rights violations. Most appeals bring up new evidence or errors by trial counsel. The attorney may testify why he did not choose to present key evidence of innocence or why he did not make key legal arguments to suppress hearsay testimony or other inflammatory evidence that would confuse a jury, for example. Once these proceedings are finished, the defendant has the right to have the same issues reconsidered by a panel of appellate judges or the full court en banc in the federal appellate circuit court of their trial jurisdiction.
Few defendants take direct appeals because most cases end with a guilty plea. A guilty plea is a contract that essentially waives almost every error that may be reviewable on direct appeal. Only the most basic failures such as the failure to provide counsel or other procedural issues that may undermine the validity of the plea may be considered. Yet, even in these cases, the appeals are usually deferred for the habeas corpus collateral appeal court to allow for submission of evidence and hearings on the issue.
Most direct appeals are related to jury instructions, motion rulings, and other objections raised at trial. If your attorney does not have adequate skills and experience, he will likely fail to preserve solid issues that can help you obtain relief in direct appeals.
No matter what type of appeal that you take, you are not likely to have your conviction reversed by the appellate courts. In most cases, the best that you can get is a resentencing or a new trial to start over again. If you had pled guilty and the plea was later found to be involuntary, unintelligent, or unknowingly entered due to procedural defects and irregularities in the process, you will have to face trial and may forego the benefit of any reduced sentences that were originally negotiated.