Federal Criminal Appeals
UPDATED: October 10, 2012
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When an individual is convicted of a federal crime, his or her first line of challenge to the guilty verdict is a federal criminal appeal. A lost appeal essentially affirms or finalizes a federal conviction or sentence. A federal criminal appeal is a review of the court proceedings and a determination of whether the trial was conducted properly; it does not reverse a guilty verdict per se and a federal appellant whose case is overturned is still subject to re-prosecution.
The rules governing federal criminal appeals can be found in 18 U.S.C. § 3732. A federal appeal is governed under different procedures than a normal trial; it is sent to an appellate court that reviews the transcripts of the court proceedings and the briefs (initial legal documents) prepared by both sides and then makes a determination as to the trial’s legality. However, the appellate court does not make a guilty or innocent determination. Instead, it looks for legal errors; on occasion, a criminal proceeding is reversed or dismissed outright. Errors can be found that do not reverse the outcome of the case; however, constitutional errors usually result in verdict reversal.
The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedurelay out the rules for federal criminal appeals. The process is usually quite lengthy and will involve long briefs, document and trial transcript review, and oral arguments. Federal appellate courts do not hear actual witness testimony during their case; instead, they read the briefs, any documentation, and sometimes hear oral arguments before rendering a decision.
Every defendant in the United States court system has the right to an appeal. However, some criminals waive this right when they cut plea bargains with federal attorneys. A guilty plea automatically waives the right to a federal criminal appeal.