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Criminal Appeals

A person who has been convicted of a crime has a number of options for seeking additional relief from the criminal justice system -- including filing an appeal to have a criminal conviction overturned or sentence reduced. Learn about post-conviction remedies available to people who have been convicted of a crime.

Criminal Appeal Basics

An appeal is the review of the trial court's activities for legal error. The appellate court only reviews the "record" of the lower court proceedings and will not consider new evidence. The record consists of the court reporter's transcripts of statements by the judge, attorneys, and witnesses. Any documents or objects entered into evidence also become part of the record.

The appealing party files a "brief;" a written explanation of the errors claimed on appeal. The opposition frequently files a brief rebutting the appeal and asking for the conviction and sentence to be upheld. A response brief is typically permitted and in some cases the court will permit oral arguments from the two sides before rendering a decision.

Winning an Appeal

Winning an appeal can be very difficult. At trial the prosecution must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. On appeal the burden is on the defendant to prove that an error was made and that the error was serious. Errors that don't affect substantial rights are disregarded as harmless. In addition to having the burden of proof the defendant must also contend with the fact that appeals courts are highly deferential to findings in the lower court. They reason that the judge and jury were present for the actual trial and testimony and as a result grant their opinions authority except where errors or misjudgments are egregious.

If an appeal is successful one possible outcome is the reversal of the conviction. These are relatively rare, however some kinds of errors are so egregious that they are presumed harmful, such as coerced confessions, and if they can be proven may result in a reversal. Appeals courts are even more reluctant to overturn sentencing decisions. One significant exception is in cases where the sentence falls outside of legal guidelines. In such instances the appellate court may send the case back to trial court for resentencing within the correct parameters.

Writs and Habeas Corpus

A writ is a document or order from a higher court that directs a lower court or official to take a specified action. A defendant can typically only appeal a decision to a higher authority once, but can file multiple writs arising from the same trial, or several different kinds of writs for the same matter. A writ is seen as an extraordinary remedy and isn't typically granted where there is another means of address, such as appeal, available. Writs help defendants contest an issue that could not be raised on appeal.

Habeas Corpus is a writ used to challenge the legal basis of the convict's imprisonment or the conditions in which they are held. Habeas Corpus is seen as a great defense against being held indefinitely without charges and is meant to check the government's power and provide prisoners a legal method to protest their imprisonment.

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