Appeals judges generally defer to trial court findings, particularly findings of fact as opposed to matters of law. Courts rarely overturn lower court decisions and "perfect" trials are not guaranteed, although certain safeguards do exist in order to account for errors and oversights. An appellate court will overturn a guilty verdict only if the trial court erred in a way that significantly contributed to the outcome. While most errors are deemed "harmless," there are, of course, some types of errors that are so serious that they are presumed harmful, such as the use of a coerced confession. Appellate courts rarely interfere with sentences handed down by the lower courts. But in some cases where the law specifies a particular sentence, the appellate court may send the case back for resentencing if the court gets it wrong.
If you have been convicted of a crime and believe the guilty verdict (or even plea) was in error, you will want to pursue the reversal of that conviction. Reversing a conviction generally happens through appeals (most commonly) or writs. This article covers the basics of reversing a conviction, but keep in mind that each case is different and laws vary by jurisdiction.
Reversing a Conviction: Appeals and Writs
It is theoretically possible for two completely reasonable juries rule differently on the agreed-upon facts of a case, and thus give different verdicts. And unless something goes wrong at the trial level, you can't appeal a case simply because you believe the jury reached the wrong verdict. But, having said that, convicted criminals do have the right to challenge the verdict (or appellate court's ruling) of a case if mistakes were made regarding the facts or matters of law, or if there were issues not readily apparent in the case record itself. These legal remedies are called appeals and writs, respectively.
If you and/or your attorney have discovered errors in the way your case was handled, and believe it materially affected your conviction or sentence, you may file an appeal. But the appeal must pinpoint a specific aspect (or aspects) of the case and make a convincing argument that there may have been serious mistakes. For example, let's say the police exceeded the specified scope of a search warrant, leading to your arrest and eventual conviction. In such a case, you would appeal on the grounds that the evidence was obtained illegally and must be excluded from trial.
But even a successful appeal won't always reverse your conviction. Using the example above, prosecutors may still be able to reach a guilty verdict without the illegally obtained evidence. So it's important to understand that criminal appeals must focus on specifics of the case and not necessarily the outcome.
Reversing a Conviction Through Writs
If all of your opportunities for an appeal have been exhausted or never available to begin with, but you still believe your trial was clouded by some kind of an injustice or mistake, you may look into filing a writ. A writ is an order from a higher court directing a lower court to take some kind of action, typically filed in extraordinary situations where an appeal isn't an option. So while the trial court may not have erred, per se, a writ may be filed if the verdict was materially based on some other injustice or error beyond its immediate control.
For example, a defendant whose attorney failed to consider a defense that may have changed the outcome of the case may petition the higher (often federal) court to issue a writ. There also may be new evidence or advances in technology (such as DNA profiling) that change the facts in the case.
Learn More About Reversing a Conviction by Speaking to a Lawyer
The fight may not be over, even if you've already been convicted of a crime. However, the odds are stacked against you when fighting the court's order. Get some help and learn your rights by contacting a criminal defense attorney to discuss your case and find out if reversing your conviction is a possibility.