There’s an institutional preference to uphold a trial court’s rulings and findings in the U.S. judicial system. Thus, for an appellate court to hear an appeal from a lower court the aggrieved party must demonstrate to the appellate court that an error was made at the trial level. Additionally, the error must have been substantial or material.
“Harmless errors,” or those unlikely to make a substantial impact on the result at trial, are not grounds for reversing the judgment of a lower court. Any error, defect, irregularity, or variance, which does not affect a defendant, or a litigant’s substantial rights, shall be disregarded as a harmless error. In other words, the first step in filing a successful criminal appeal is to show that there was more than just a harmless error.
Basic Grounds for a Criminal Appeal
Assuming that there was more than merely harmless error, there are four basic grounds for appeal:
Criminal Appeal Based on Plain Error
Plain error is an error or defect that affects the defendant’s substantial rights, even though the parties did not bring this error or defect to the judge’s attention during trial. Of course, some plain errors or defects affecting substantial rights may be noticed although they were not brought to the attention of the court in the form of timely objections. Plain errors can form a basis for a successful appeal of a criminal conviction as well as for overturning a wide variety of court verdicts and rulings.
One common example of plain error is when judges miscalculate sentences after convictions. Miscalculations in these equations often leads appellate courts to return cases to these trial court judges for re-sentencing based on plain error in sentencing.
Criminal Appeal Based on Insufficient Weight of Evidence
It is much more difficult to prevail in an appeal based on the alleged insufficient weight of evidence. Although appellate courts review the transcripts of trials, they almost never hear actual testimony of witnesses, view the presentation of evidence, or hear the parties’ opening and closing arguments. Consequently, they are not in the best position to assess the weight of evidence in many cases. With DNA evidence now available, appellate attorneys can now reveal situations when a judge improperly allowed or disallowed evidence into trials where proper admission of evidence and testimony would have led to different verdicts.
Criminal Appeal Based on Abuse of Discretion
Judges make rulings throughout a criminal or a civil case. Some rulings are in legal areas that give a judge a wide range of discretion. If an appellate court finds that a judge abused this discretion, it means the ruling was “clearly unreasonable, erroneous, or arbitrary and not supported by the facts or law in the case.” Due to longstanding state histories of abusing discretion in favor of local biases, the federal sentencing guidelines were developed to prevent this kind of negative abuse in federal sentencing.
Criminal Appeal Based on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Ineffective assistance of counsel implies that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to adequate representation and right to a fair trial have been violated. In analyzing claims that a defendant’s lawyer was ineffective the principal goal is to determine whether the lawyer’s conduct so undermined the functioning of the judicial process that the trial cannot be relied upon as having produced a just result.
Many appellate courts have held that if a defense attorney was ineffective, even asleep, but his failures alone did not create an unfair trial, the conviction will stand. Similar appellate courts have held that a verdict may stand when a juror was asleep, so long as the juror was awake during “material” parts of the trial.