Appealing a Criminal Conviction
Although being convicted of a crime can be a devastating experience, there is still some hope for a favorable outcome. A defendant has a right to appeal the conviction to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Depending on the severity of the sentence imposed, a defendant may be released on bail pending the outcome of the appeal.
An appeal is based entirely on the trial court record of the proceedings and no new evidence may be presented. The defendant, now called appellant, presents issues to the appellate court claiming that the trial court made an error or errors that rendered the proceedings unfair.
Appellate issues generally involve claims that the trial judge ruled incorrectly by admitting certain evidence, by overruling certain objections or by instructing the jury inaccurately on the law. Any event that occurred at trial that resulted in an unfair verdict may be challenged on appeal. A claim that a law violates the Massachusetts Constitution or United States Constitution may also be raised on appeal.
Filing an appeal is not an easy process. Certain steps must be taken, deadlines must be met and detailed rules must be followed or the appeal will not proceed. A notice of appeal must be filed within a certain time frame. Transcripts of trial court proceedings must be ordered and prepared. Any court documents relevant to the appeal must be assembled.
After all documents are prepared, the appellant files a brief in the appeals court. This is a written document that cites legal authorities, including statutes or cases, which support the view that the trial court committed an error. The brief explains why that error rendered the proceedings unfair.
The state files a response to the appellant by filing what is called "the appellee's brief" which presents a rebuttal to the appellant's assertions of error. After all briefs are filed, the appeals court may establish a date for oral argument. The primary purpose of oral argument is to give the judges the opportunity to ask questions of the representatives of both sides. The appeals court may issue a decision without oral argument.
After oral argument, the case is deemed submitted and the judges begin their private deliberations. There is no time requirement within which the appeals court must issue its decision so all the appellant can do is wait for the written decision of the court.
There can be several different outcomes of an appeal. Approximately 20 percent of appeals result in reversal of the case. There are instances when an appeals court finds the trial court made an error, but conclude the error did not make the proceedings unfair and was therefore "harmless."
If the appeals court does not decide the appeal in favor of the appellant, a request can be made to the appeals court for a rehearing. Also, a request can be made to the Supreme Judicial Court to review the appellate decision. Although the first appeal is one of right, requests for rehearing or to the Supreme Judicial Court for review are discretionary.
Rosemary Curran Scapicchio has many years of experience handling successful appeals in Massachusetts and federal courts. Call our office to discuss your case (617) 263-7400.