Hi SD,

I don’t understand the process of appealing a court decision. Do appeals have a good chance of success? Is the appeal brought before a different judge? If so, what’s the point of the first judge who has more knowledge of the case?

I always hear “If I am convicted, I will appeal this decision.” Is that a person who knows he’s guilty saying I’ll keep trying to convince them otherwise until they won’t listen to me anymore?

Do appeals generally rest on a question of the accused’s guilt, or a question of evidence, or a question of proper application of the law?

I’m new at the legal stuff–just seems to me that an appeal to a different judge is basically saying, “Yay! I get a chance for a do-over! I can refine my case and present it at its strongest and it’s as if my conviction did not happen.”

If it’s presented in front of the same judge that convicted the person in the first place, they wouldn’t react well to that same schmuck trying to weasel his way into being proven not guilty, knowing what an asshole he could be based on the case against him. And if it’s presented in front of a different judge or judges, won’t they similarly think that “come on, whoever this guy is, he had his chance and he LOST.”

Enlighten me, please!


IANAL, so here (pdf) is some information about appeals in the US.

No doubt one of the Great Legal Minds of the SDMB will be along to explain it better than I could.


Not a US lawyer, but I can take a crack at it.

Depends entirely on the merits of the appeal. If it’s an appeal because “I got convicted! that can’t be right!” probably not.

But if it’s an appeal based on a good argument that the trial judge erred in law in some way, with good research into the law to support the grounds of appeal, chances would be better.

As to actual stats about chances of success, I don’t know.

Yes. Normally an appeal goes to an appellate court where there is a panel of three or more judges who hear the appeal.

The purpose of the appeal is to review the lower court decision and to ensure that no error was made. It’s a general principle that when government authority is being exercised, there should always be a way to have the exercise of that authority reviewed. That’s particularly important in a criminal case, where the liberty of the individual is at stake.

However, there is one major difference between the trial judge and the appellate judges. The trial judge is the one who has had the benefit of hearing the witnesses directly and has assessed their credibility. The trial judge is thus in the best position to make findings of fact. On appeal, the trial judge’s findings of fact normally cannot be questioned, unless an error of law was involved (eg, the trial judge allowed a particular witness to testify on a matter that was not admissible under the rules of evidence, which is a legal test).

The function of the appellate judges is to review any alleged errors of law made by the trial judge in the course of the trial. They have the luxury of time: the trial judge knows the law, of course, but may have had to make a decision on a point of law on the spur of the moment in the trial (e.g. should a document be admitted?) without much time to consider it. The appellate judges can review the alleged errors of law with more time to consider it.

All of them, depending on the grounds of appeal. One argument is that the conviction was unsafe based on the overall evidence; that the court below made an unreasonable decision about the guilt of the accused. It could also be based on the rules of evidence (which is a subset of proper application of the law) or on other legal issues, such as whether there was a constitutional violation in some way (e.g the police got a confession from the accused while he was in custody, without giving a Miranda warning).

First, the onus is always on the appellant to convince the appellate court that an error was made, sufficient to set aside the conviction. That’s a high standard to meet. Second, the grounds of appeal normally have to been raised at the trial as well, so that the trial judge had an opportunity to consider the point. It’s not a complete do-over.

As a general rule only questions of proper application of the law can be appealed. Obviously it’s a fuzzy grey area here at times but that’s the principle involved.

In the USA (and at the Federale level), we have District Courts where trials are conducted. Most all major and medium sized cities will have one of these. Say, for example, the prosecutor submits a piece of evidence to prove intent of action. The judge allows it to be entered, except the evidence was obtained without a search warrant.

One can then appeal that one decision to the next higher level of courts, which would be one of the twelve Federale appeals court scattered around the country. If the appeal is successful, then that decision is sent down to the District Court and the evidence is disallowed, but only that evidence, the trial continues without it then.

If the appeal is unsuccessful, or it’s refused a hearing … then one can appeal to the SCOTUS which can either agree, disagree or refuse a hearing. The SCOTUS ruling is final.

This is very simplified but that’s the general idea. One of those “checks and balances” built into the USA system to make sure everyone interprets the law the same way.

In normal cases, an appeal is basically saying ‘the lower court screwed up the law, here’s why’. It isn’t ‘I’m innocent, you have to prove I’m guilty again’. The appeals court doesn’t look at new evidence or testimony, it listens to legal arguments about whether the trial was conducted properly. The judge may have overruled an objection that he shouldn’t have, evidence was collected in a way that violates a recent higher court ruling that the judge didn’t think applied, a judge allowed something to happen that prejudiced the jury, a required procedure wasn’t followed, or something along those lines.

It’s possible to argue that a law or its application in this case is unconstitutional (federal and/or state constitution), but these arguments rarely work in criminal cases. IIRC it’s not uncommon for city ordinances and minor crimes to be struck down as unconstitutionally vague or first amendment violations. It’s also possible to argue that a person’s lawyer was incompetent and did so badly at representing them that the case is invalid, but this rarely succeeds as the bar for this is much higher than ‘I lost, so obviously my lawyer was bad’.

Thanks for this. A question about disallowed evidence. Can a jury really rationally decide someone’s not guilty by “forgetting” about evidence that was illegally obtained and therefore inadmissible? I mean, if it’s failrly obvious that the evidence convicts the person, a rational jurist is not going to just blank out that evidence, are they? They are already biased because they’ve seen this (illegally obtained) evidence. How does a jurist reconcile this? It must be an exercise in semantics. “Forget you ever saw this” doesn’t work in real life, in any situation. Right?

Yeah, but what about these people who say “If I’m convicted, I’ll appeal!” ? The trial isn’t over yet. Maybe the trial is being conducted properly and they have no reason to appeal. Maybe they will be found not guilty! Therefore, their idea of just appealing anyway speaks more to “I’m guilty and I know it, and I am going to find shit that might be improper because that’s my only chance of success.” It’s like saying, “I am not even concerned with being found innocent, I am just going to tear apart the trial procedure no matter what it is.” Which kind of marks you as an ass.

They’ll seat a new jury and start the trial from the beginning if a conviction was obtained with illegal evidence presented to the jury. In rare circumstances they might even try the case before a different judge.

ETA: If one is sentenced to death, the case is automatically appealed. Don’t forget that the appeals court has the option to refuse to hear the appeal. “I’m appealing the conviction because the witness’ dress exposed her ankles thus swaying the jury to believe her” … typically this won’t even get a hearing.

This is not quite accurate. It is true that appellate courts do not reweigh evidence; they won’t have the evidence before them, but only the record of the proceedings. If the factfinder thinks one witness was credible and another was not, the appellate court will generally not revisit a ruling based on that finding. Even this is not an absolute rule, since an appellate court could reweigh evidence if its weight is apparent from the record itself (say, if a witness admitted that he could not have been present at the location he earlier testified he was in).

However, an appellate court does consider the evidence in addition to the law. For example, it will consider the sufficiency of the evidence: if the credible witness’ testimony was the only evidence, and it did not address one of the elements of the crime/tort/whatever, then a judgment that required that element to be found must be overturned.

This is also incorrect, as a general rule. In almost every circumstance, in almost every US jurisdiction, a party which loses at trial is entitled to one appeal as a matter of right - meaning it must be heard if timely filed with the appropriate fees and record preparation and so on. Appeal from that decision is generally discretionary.

This is from a legal “wiki”, I can’t vouch for it’s accuracy.

Of course everyone has the right to apply for an appeal, but only the court can decide to accept it or not based on the law.

The jury has broad powers to vote however they want for any stupid reason they can come up with. Judges are generally loathe to pry into the jury’s decision-making process anyway. So unless the juror actually admits that he disregarded the Judge’s instructions (for example, posting his opinion on Facebook or something) then there is really no way for the Judge to know what decision-making process an individual juror used.

Whether an individual juror is actually able to disregard inadmissible evidence hinges on their maturity, reasoning skills, and their pre-existing ideas about what the law is and how it should work. I’m not sure anyone is so aware of the workings of their reasoning process that they can guarantee something is excluded from it (even at a subconscious level). At a certain point you just have to accept that a perfect system is impossible, some things will never be known with certainty, and the legal system is just the best tool we could come up with to manage inherently ambiguous and chaotic events.

It’s accurate as to administrative proceedings, but administrative law is basically an entirely separate body of law. It’s not accurate as to federal district court decisions (except that the government rarely has an appeal as “a matter of right” in criminal cases.)

I’ve never tried a case in Federale court, but in our State Courts there’s a number of cases that cannot be appealed, as a matter of written law. For example a judge’s decision as to “What’s in the best interest of a child”. The law explicitly states this cannot be appealed. Forced Entry and Detainer is another.

I think you’re being tripped up but the phrase “absolute right” to appeal. That would mean each and every case is reviewed by the appeals court, no exceptions. I honestly don’t think that’s the case.

Why do you keep writing Federale?

How much time do you spend talking to people who are facing charges? You say that you hear this a lot, in what context do you hear it? If it’s in person I think you might need a new social circle, if it’s on TV then it’s just a script writer coming up with something that sounds dramatic.

Personally, if I was accused of a crime I would fight it as long and hard as I could, because I really don’t want to end up in prison or executed. I think most people don’t find the idea of prison appealing (no pun intended), so I would expect them to fight to the bitter end of any appeals or pleas for a pardon or whatever. If someone was actually faced with criminal charges and took the attitude that you’ve expressed in this thread (and IIRC others) of ‘well, they got me, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience the prosecutor’, I’d suspect that they had a mental issue of some sort. The idea that someone might think me an ass for trying not to do prison time certainly wouldn’t even register as a thing to consider.

That’s the Spanish word for “federal”, call it habit. Otherwise I’m pleading the Fifth …

Who is “our?” The best interest of a child is a finding of fact. That doesn’t mean the case cannot be appealed in general.

I assume in the USA, like in Canada, sometimes the court will find the error in trial process sufficiently problematic that they will instead order a new trial. Especially, if new evidence is found, the requirement would be to go through the whole case again and see how the new evidence stacks against the old evidence, and whether a jury would still convict. An exception I recall was DNA evidence - the appeal court would reasonably conclude - “there is no way a jury could find you guilty with this new evidence.”

The “I will appeal” mentality is generally based on the fact that something somewhere in the trial can be argued as an error by the judge or prosecutor… after all, lawyers can find something to argue. Whether the appeal court decides it has merit enough to even have a hearing - wait and see.

Also, the convicted can appeal if they feel the sentence is excessively harsh - the trial judge erred in determining sentence. I do recall reading of some cases where the appeal resulted in a longer sentence. You pays your money and you takes your chance.

We the People …

Except where the law forbids an appeal … for example in child custody cases, where a lengthy court process would normally be rendered moot on the child’s 18[sup]th[/sup] birthday. That’s not to say that another case can’t be filed based on the proceedings, like a witness lied, but that would be a separate case … the ruling on child custody stands. It’s very harmful to a child to be bounced around in different homes. Remembering that in matters where child abuse is involved it would be a criminal case, not a child custody case.

Hi Pantastic,

Well I hear these things in the news…most recently, Aroldis Chapman said if he was given a suspension for domestic violence from the Yankees, he’d appeal. Are these two situations at all alike? But I’ve heard corporations say they’ll file an appeal plenty of times, when accused of wrongdoing. What about Apple and the phones of the San Bernardino shooters?

As to your last point, the person who is arguing procedural legality is often done protesting his innocence. If it’s painfully clear this is the case, that he is guilty, it sucks that people can get off on a technicality. Is our legal system now a question of who knows law better and can play the system to his or her advantage? And how do things change in high profile cases? Like, a serial killer who all the evidence points to gets off on procedural mismanagement. Will people play vigilante and decide to convict an absolute hated and despised defendant despite the fact that the trial was indeed conducted improperly? How does this not lead to a grey area as regards to what trial procedures can be ignored in favor of the importance of convicting someone we all know did it?