Grounds for Criminal Appeal
UPDATED: March 28, 2012
It’s all about you. We want to help you make the right legal decisions.
We strive to help you make confident law decisions. Finding trusted and reliable legal advice should be easy. This doesn't influence our content. Our opinions are our own.
Grounds for a criminal appeal must be based in law and not facts. In other words, an appeal allows a defendant to attack the judgment of the trial court on legal, not factual grounds. To understand what this means, it helps to note that in a criminal trial, the prosecutor tries to convince the jury that the facts of a case show that a law was violated by the defendant, while the judge gives the jury instructions about what the law means and makes sure that both the lawyers and the jury follow the law throughout the trial. The only job the jury has throughout a trial is related to the facts of the case. The jury decides the facts, including whether witnesses are telling the truth and whether the facts when added up and examined show that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Appealing a judgment on legal grounds means that the error in the judgment resulted from a problem with the law related to the case. Factual grounds are disputes about factual determinations made by the jury, such as the value of a piece of evidence or the credibility of a certain witness. An appellate court will very rarely review factual errors, unless there was a plain error, meaning the factual error of the trial court was very obvious.
The most common reasons to appeal a case include legal grounds such as improper exclusion or admission of evidence, incorrect jury instructions, lack of sufficient evidence to support a finding of guilty, sentencing errors, false arrest, juror misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel. In order to prevail on the appeal, the legal error must be material. This means that the error must have been egregious enough to affect the outcome of the defendant’s case. If the error is not material, or is found to not have affected the outcome of the defendant’s case, the appellate court will hold the error harmless and uphold the verdict of the trial court.
Preserving an Error for Appeal
In most cases, in order for a defendant to appeal a legal error made at trial, the trial attorney (or the defendant if he was representing himself) must have objected to the error on the record. An objection can be made verbally or through a written motion, and can be done both before the start of trial, or during trial.
The basic idea behind objecting and therefore preserving the error is that appellate courts are meant to fix the errors of the trial court. Therefore, the trial court must be given the opportunity to fix the error themselves. If the attorney fails to object and state a reason for the objection, the attorney has implicitly waived the error. Since the attorney waives the error, the trial court does not have an opportunity to fix it, and the appellate court will generally refuse to consider the potential error unless it is particularly egregious.
False Arrest as Grounds for Appeal
If an individual is convicted of a crime for which he was falsely arrested, this is a legal defense to the charge of the crime, and hence grounds to appeal a criminal conviction. A false arrest occurs when law enforcement arrests a person without probable cause or a warrant, and the arrest does not fall into an exception in which a warrant is not required. Further, if there was a faulty search warrant that led to an arrest, there mays be grounds for a criminal appeal.
Incorrect Jury Instructions
At the end of every criminal trial in which there is a jury, the judge gives jury instructions, which is how he advises the jury of the laws applicable to the case. When the judge fails to inform the jury of the correct application of the law, or fails to include all of the applicable laws for a verdict, this can be grounds to appeal the defendant’s conviction.
For example, suppose an individual is being tried for murder. Generally, the judge advises the jury on the elements necessary to meet the charges of murder, as well as elements necessary to meet lighter crimes, such as manslaughter and/or assault. However, the judge in this case only advises the jury on the elements of murder, and none of the other lighter sentences. In many states, this would be grounds for an appeal.
Improper Admission or Exclusion of Evidence
Before every criminal trial, there is a hearing to determine which evidence will be allowed in at trial, and which evidence will not. Both the prosecution and the defense bring in their own evidence, and likely object to some of the opposing side's evidence. The judge makes the ultimate decision on which evidence to allow at trial.
When a judge erroneously excludes proper evidence, or allows improper evidence to come in at trial, and the opposing attorney objects, the appellate attorney may bring the issue up on appeal as a legal error. The appellate court will review the evidence, the reason for the objection, and make a determination on whether the judge committed a legal error by allowing the evidence in at trial. The appellate review does not stop here, however. Even if the court determines that it was error for the judge to allow the evidence to come in at trial, the appellate court must next decide whether the error was material such that it prejudiced the defendant’s case.
Lack of Sufficient Evidence
Lack of sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict is another type of legal error that is grounds for appeal. In order to sustain a criminal conviction, there must be evidence that proves the case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. If a jury convicts a defendant when there is insufficient evidence to prove the defendant guilty, this may mean the jury made a decision on the verdict based on emotion or prejudice, and the verdict can be appealed.
However, an appeal based on lack of sufficient evidence is difficult to obtain. Because a trial court is the court in which the parties are able to present the physical evidence, testimony of witnesses, and pertinent facts, the appellate court will rely heavily on the discretion of the trial court's ultimate decision regarding the verdict. Unless there was a situation in which it was obvious that the weight of the evidence did not support a guilty verdict and that some other factor played a part in the ultimate decision of the court, the appellate court will generally trust that the trial court and the jury made an adequate review of the evidence to come to their decision.
In order to facilitate an impartial jury decision based strictly on the evidence before them in court, jurors are subject to very strict rules while on a jury. Juror misconduct occurs when a juror breaks any of these rules. In many states, once juror misconduct is raised on appeal, the burden shifts to the opposing side to show that there was no juror misconduct. This essentially means that it is easier to prevail on an appeal based on juror misconduct than on another basis.
One example of juror misconduct includes inappropriate communication. This inappropriate communication can occur between jurors, jurors and witnesses, or jurors and the attorneys. When a juror discusses the case with another juror outside the deliberation room, this can lead to a biased jury. Likewise, if a juror interviews a witness, or discusses the case with the prosecution, it can lead a juror to make conclusions about the case based on outside influences, and not just the evidence presented before them in the court.
Another example of juror misconduct includes juror experiments. This is when jurors investigate beyond the evidence that is given in court. Other examples of juror misconduct include refusing to deliberate, abusing drugs and alcohol, or concealing information that is relevant to the case at hand.
State sentencing laws can be very complex. The type and number of crimes the defendant is convicted of at one time affects the way a defendant is sentenced. Prior offenses can also affect the way a defendant is sentenced. Depending on these factors, there are different rules that judges must follow when it comes to the sentencing phase of the trial. For example, in some cases, the judge must give a reason for choosing a particular sentence. This comes up most often in cases in which the judge imposes the highest sentence available for the conviction.
In other situations with multiple crimes, depending on a variety of factors, the judge may be required to sentence the defendant with consecutive or concurrent sentences. Consecutive sentences are served one after the other, and concurrent sentences are served simultaneously, so the time a party spends in prison or jail may count toward multiple concurrent sentences. This means that serving concurrent sentences means a convicted party is serving a shorter term than if he were given consecutive sentences. If a judge sentences a defendant consecutively, when by law she should have imposed concurrent sentences, then the convicted party may have grounds for appeal.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Under U.S. law every individual has the right to counsel, which has been defined by the courts as the right to effective assistance of counsel, or in otherwords, every defendant is entitled to a competent lawyer. However, appellate courts give attorneys wide discretion to make tactical decisions, and not every attorney inadequacy can change the outcome of a trial court verdict on appeal. However, when the conduct of an attorney is such that it falls outside the boundaries of how a reasonable attorney would act, the conduct might constitute grounds for criminal appeal. The defendant must show that the behavior of the attorney prejudiced the defendant so much that it affected the outcome of the defendant’s case.
Examples of ineffective assistance include failing to object to improper evidence introduced by the prosecution, failing to motion for mistrial in the face of blatant juror or prosecutorial misconduct or other prejudice to the defendant, or otherwise failing to adequately advocate for the defendant, such as by missing court hearings or motion deadlines, falling asleep in court, or abusing drugs and alcohol during trial.
Unethical Acts by the Prosecutor
Unethical acts by a prosecutor, otherwise called prosecutorial misconduct, can also be grounds to appeal a criminal conviction. Like other grounds for appeal, the defendant must be able to show that prosecutor acted egregiously enough to affect the outcome of the defendant’s trial. For example, if a prosecutor makes improper comments about evidence, appeals to the jury’s emotions or prejudices, or intentionally misstates the law, these actions can be the basis of a criminal appeal.
When a prosecutor behaves unethically at trial, a judge will often try and cure the situation by instructing the jury to disregard the prosecutor’s comments, evidence, or misstatement of law. To prevail in an appeal for prosecutorial misconduct, the defendant must show that either the judge completely failed to remedy the situation, or the judge's actions to fix the problems were not successful, and therefore the defendant was unfairly prejudiced by the prosecutor’s acts.