What Steps to Take When Filing a Criminal Appeal

The process of filing a criminal appeal is a crucial legal right for any defendant found guilty in a court of law. An appeal is not a new trial but a request for a higher court to review the decision of a lower court for legal errors that may have affected the verdict or the sentence. The right to a fair trial is fundamental, and the appellate system ensures that this right is preserved by providing a mechanism to challenge potentially wrongful convictions or improper sentences.

The appeal process is intricate and governed by specific procedural rules which vary by jurisdiction. Understanding these steps is essential for any defendant or defense attorney who wishes to challenge a court decision.

Step 1: Determine the Grounds for Appeal

The first step in filing a criminal appeal is to determine whether there are viable grounds for appeal. Common grounds include legal errors, such as improper admission or exclusion of evidence, incorrect jury instructions, or potential misconduct by the prosecution. Other grounds can be the discovery of new evidence, or ineffective assistance of counsel, which refers to cases where the defendant’s lawyer failed to perform competently.

It’s critical to understand that an appeal is not a re-hearing of the case; it does not consider new evidence except in very specific circumstances (like proving ineffective assistance of counsel or the discovery of new, exculpatory evidence that couldn’t have been found with reasonable diligence before the trial). Instead, the appeal is strictly about examining whether legal mistakes were made during the trial and if these mistakes likely changed the outcome of the case.

Step 2: Notice of Appeal

After conviction and sentencing, the defendant has a limited period to file a notice of appeal, typically within 30 days. This period can vary, so it’s important to act quickly and consult legal advice to ensure deadlines are met. The notice of appeal is a formal statement, filed with the trial court, that the defendant intends to challenge the conviction or sentence. This document is crucial as failing to file it within the deadline generally results in the loss of the right to appeal.

Step 3: Obtain the Trial Record

Once the notice of appeal is filed, the next step is to obtain the trial record. The trial record includes transcripts of all court proceedings, evidence submitted during the trial, and motions and orders filed during the case. The appellant’s attorney will review these documents to identify errors that support the appeal.

Step 4: Filing the Briefs

An appeal brief is a detailed document written by the appellant’s attorney that argues why the conviction or sentence should be reversed based on legal errors during the trial. The brief must cite specific examples from the trial record and apply legal precedents that support the argument for reversal.

After the appellant’s brief is filed, the government (appellee) will file a response brief, arguing why the trial court’s decision should be upheld. The appellant typically has the opportunity to file a reply brief to address points made in the government’s response.

Step 5: Oral Arguments

Although not always required, most appeals courts schedule a session for oral arguments where lawyers from both sides can present their arguments and answer questions from the judges. This is an opportunity for the appellant’s attorney to emphasize the errors and persuade the appellate judges to reverse the lower court’s decision.

Step 6: The Decision

After reviewing the briefs and hearing oral arguments, the appellate court will make its decision. The court may affirm the original decision, reverse it, or remand the case back to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with its findings. The appellate court’s decision is typically final, but further appeals to a higher appellate court, or even the Supreme Court, may be possible depending on the jurisdiction and the specific legal issues involved.

Step 7: Further Appeals

If the appeal is unsuccessful, and there are still viable grounds for challenging the legal basis of the conviction or the manner in which the appeal was handled, it may be possible to file a further appeal. This could involve appealing to the state’s highest court or even the U.S. Supreme Court. Each step requires careful legal analysis and strategic planning, as the higher courts are generally more selective about the cases they choose to hear.


Filing a criminal appeal is a complex legal process that requires careful preparation, detailed knowledge of the law, and strategic planning. The process is designed to ensure that justice is served by allowing for the review of potentially flawed decisions. For defendants, understanding these steps and working closely with competent legal counsel is critical to effectively navigate this challenging process.

By adhering to these guidelines and preparing a compelling argument, defendants and their attorneys can undertake an appeal with a clear understanding of the required procedures and the overarching goal of achieving a fair and just outcome in the legal system.

author avatar

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button