Sometimes a conviction is not the end of a criminal case. The defendant has the opportunity to appeal the verdict or sentence they received.
On appeal, the defendant – now referred to as the appellant – submits their case to a higher court (called an appellate court). The appellant argues that an error affected the outcome of their case, and they are asking the appellate court to determine whether they should be retried or resentenced.
What Happens When a Criminal Case Is Appealed?
Essentially, an appeal is a request to have an appellate court review what happened at trial. It is not a new trial.
The process begins with the appellant filing a motion for an appeal to the higher court. Both the appellant and the respondent (the entity on the other side of the appeal) submit written briefs to the appellate court. The appellant's written brief will contain arguments about how and why the conviction or sentence is wrong. In contrast, the respondent's brief will argue why the trial court's decision should be upheld.
The appellate court judges (called justices) will review each side's briefs along with the original court record. The record is a log of everything that happened at trial. This log includes everything the judge, attorneys, and witnesses said, as well as anything presented as evidence.
The justices review the submitted documents to determine whether any legal error occurred at trial that affected the outcome.
Can New Evidence Be Presented in an Appeal?
As noted earlier, an appeal is not a new trial. As such, neither the appellant nor the respondent can present any new evidence to support their arguments. Thus, no new witnesses can be brought forward nor new materials can be submitted.
The appeal is based solely on the trial court record. The justices are concerned only with whether a legal error harmed the case.
In some cases, the justices may call upon the appellant (or their attorney) and the respondent to make oral arguments. They typically do this when they want to clarify information provided in the briefs.
What Are the Grounds for Criminal Appeals?
A defendant cannot file an appeal just because they were unhappy with the outcome of their criminal case. They must have a valid reason (or grounds) supporting their claim that the verdict or sentence should be reconsidered.
Grounds for an appeal are based on a legal error (or errors) that occurred during trial that had a substantial or material effect on the case. In other words, it caused harm to the defendant or hurt the case. Additionally, absent that error, a reasonable factfinder would have come to a different conclusion.
Examples of grounds for an appeal include, but are not limited to:
- Mistake of laws or court procedures: A defendant's criminal case could have been hurt if judges, attorneys, or others incorrectly interpreted or presented laws relevant to the matter or failed to follow the rules of the court.
- Incorrect jury instructions: Jurors can make erroneous decisions in a criminal case if the judge did not correctly instruct them on the elements of the offense or the evidence they should consider when deciding whether the defendant is guilty.
- Misconduct by lawyers or jurors: Misconduct can include, but is not limited to, dishonest acts, deceptive practices, or jurors doing their own investigations concerning the case.
- Ineffective assistance of counsel: The defendant could argue that their defense lawyer's representation fell below reasonable standards and they acted or failed to act in a way a competent attorney would have under similar circumstances.
- Abuse of discretion: In some cases, judges might go beyond the bounds of their authority when deciding what does and does not happen at trial. Unreasonable or arbitrary decisions could impact the outcome of the case.
- Insufficient evidence: A defendant can argue that the judge or jury convicted them based on evidence that did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The above are just some of the ways a defendant can challenge their conviction or sentence. Others may be available depending on what happened at trial. Note, however, that not all errors at trial can serve as grounds for an appeal. If the mistake was harmless, meaning it did not substantially hurt the defendant's case, it may not serve as a valid reason to request an appellate court's review.
What Are the Outcomes of an Appeal?
Depending on what the justices find, there may be several different outcomes of an appeal.
- Affirm: The justices agree with the lower court's decision, and the conviction or sentence remains as is.
- New trial: The justices order that the lower court hears the case again.
- Remand: The justices send the case back to the lower court with remedies for curing the error.
If you were convicted of a crime in Rhode Island and believe an error occurred that harmed your case, speak with an attorney as soon as possible. They can help you understand your options.