Legal papers and gavel

Federal criminal appeals are difficult to understand, so this blog is going to address one of the common misconceptions. A main misconception is that a federal criminal appeal or, more specifically, a ‘direct’ appeal, is an opportunity to re-address or re-open the facts that were presented at trial. It is definitely not that at all! In fact, an appeal and a trial essentially have nothing in common other than the defendant and the prosecuting entity.

NOTE: Every defendant’s case is different; we encourage you to reach out to our office to schedule a free phone consultation to discuss the specifics of your loved ones’ case with our knowledgeable and compassionate staff.

So, what *is* a federal criminal appeal?  Essentially, it is a legal proceeding by which the judgement (or order) of the court – usually a district court – is attacked on some legal grounds. The defendant or his/her attorney files written ‘briefs’ (which are rarely brief). These briefs claim that certain errors warrant the reversal of a conviction or, at the very least, a reduction of a sentence. The government then has an opportunity to respond with their brief. In a few cases, the appellate court may hear oral arguments from both sides to clarify points raised in the briefs. This process often takes months (and in a few cases, it can take years) from start to finish. 

During the Appeals Process

During the appeal process, the appellate court will review the records of the prior court’s proceedings to determine whether there are adequate grounds to grant the appeal. These ‘proceedings’ occur almost entirely in writing. Each side files briefs raising and responding to legal errors alleged to have taken place in the district court. 

The records that are reviewed include all pre- and post-trial motions, all evidence admitted to the court and a word-for-word transcript of the trial. In many cases, the evidentiary documents and physical evidence are actually transported to the site of the appellate court. This is done so that the court can examine them first-hand as it considers the legal arguments. In addition to reviewing these materials, the appellate court will also review the written briefs submitted by each party. As mentioned above, in a very few number of cases, oral arguments from counsel will be heard to clarify any points raised by the written briefs. 

Because the entire proceeding is mostly virtual, appellate courts are not courts ‘of record’. That means there are no official court reporters, no witness stands and no juries, nor are they fact-finding courts. Generally, appellate courts do not receive evidence or testimony. Instead, they review, consider and resolve legal arguments AFTER the facts of the case have already be received, reviewed and judged in the district court. 

REMEMBER: Every defendant’s case is different; contact our office to schedule a free phone consultation to discuss the specifics of your loved ones’ case with our knowledgeable and compassionate staff.