A direct appeal challenges either a criminal conviction or a sentence for a defendant who either pleaded guilty or was found guilty after trial.
The Appeals Process
The appeals process is very different than the trial process.
A court of appeals or appellate court will not likely consider new evidence in the case. Rather, the appeals court reviews actions that occurred in the trial court for what is known as “legal error.” An appeal challenges action(s)s that occurred during trial, such as by the lawyers, judge or jury.
The person who files the appeal is called the “appellant.” In a criminal context, the defendant who was found guilty in the trial court becomes the appellant by filing an appeal of his conviction and/or sentence.
The party responding to the appeal is referred to as the “appellee.” In a criminal context, this is most often the government.
The arguments attorneys make on appeal are usually submitted in writing called a “brief.”
The appellant files the initial brief that contains arguments in support of why either the conviction should be overturned and/or the sentence should be reduced.
The appellee responds with a “reply brief.” If the appellant so desires, he or she can file a written and final response to the reply brief.
Arguments on Appeal
The arguments on appeal challenge actions or omissions by the parties at trial, which the appellant believes deprived him of a fair trial.
All arguments must be based upon supporting information contained in the trial record, which consists of a verbatim transcript of the pretrial and trial proceedings, pleadings, and evidence offered to the trial court.
The appeals court considers only the trial court record and will not typically allow for the submission of new evidence.
After reviewing the written submissions of the parties on appeal and the lower court record, the appeals court invites the lawyers to appear before it for the presentation of what is called “oral argument.” The actual parties represented on appeal are not normally present for arguments, and are certainly not present if incarcerated.
During oral argument, the lawyers are given a limited period of time, usually between 10 – 20 minutes, to make an oral presentation in support of their respective claims on appeal. The judges on the appeals normally court pose questions to the lawyers during their arguments, typically to clarify questions about the trial record, points of law, or application of the law to the facts of the case.
An appeals court does not determine whether or not a defendant is guilty or innocent. This is the function of a trial court. Instead, on appeal, the court reviews what happened at trial to determine if any legal errors were made.
Examples of Legal Errors
Examples of legal errors include impermissible argument by the lawyers, the judge allowing evidence that should have been excluded or disallowing evidence that should have been admitted, juror or prosecutor misconduct, and many more.
If a legal error is identified, the appeals court must then determine if the error deprived the defendant of his constitutional right to a fair trial.
If the legal error is big enough, such that it negatively impacted the right to a fair trial, the appeals court may overturn the trial court’s ruling and vacate the resulting conviction. If the legal error applies to the sentence imposed, the appeal court may reduce the defendant’s sentence or send the case back to the trial court for re-sentencing.
If an error was either not committed or did not impact the defendant’s right to a fair trial if committed, the appeals court will affirm the lower court’s ruling and deny the appeal.