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For anyone involved in the criminal justice system, the criminal appeals process can be the most perplexing part. The reasons are twofold. First, the appellate courts have their own rules and procedures that are quite different from the rules and procedures at the trial court level. Second, the appellate courts are not a place where a defendant gets to retry the case. Rather the appellate courts exist to review what happened at the trial and determine whether there were errors serious enough to warrant a reversal of the conviction.
Motion for New Trial
The criminal appeals process, in the majority of criminal cases, begins after a jury has rendered its verdict, and a judge has entered a sentence against the defendant. At that time, the clock begins running and the defendant has 30 days in which to file a motion for new trial or a notice of appeal. In almost all cases, the motion for new trial is going to be preferable because it essentially stops the running of the clock and keeps jurisdiction of the case at the trial court. A notice of appeal, by contrast, sends the case directly to the appellate court and leaves an attorney little time to develop an effective appeal.
Once the motion for new trial is filed, all deadlines are temporarily suspended. This allows the appellate attorney to review the trial transcript and pinpoint errors that occurred at the trial or in pre-trial litigation. The appellate attorney will then amend the motion for new trial to include the issues spotted in the transcript review. At this point, the case goes back in front of the trial judge, i.e. the same judge that sat over the jury trial, and the appellate attorney argues for a new trial for the defendant based on the alleged errors. The trial judge will either agree that the errors warrant reversal and grant a new trial for the defendant or disagree and deny the motion for new trial.
If the trial judge denies the motion for new trial, the defendant then has 30 days to file a notice of appeal. This is a pleading that directs the clerk of court to send the entire case file, including the trial transcript, to the appellate court. In Georgia, a state criminal conviction will be appealed to either the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court depending on the type of crime: all murders go to the Supreme Court and all other types of criminal cases go to the Court of Appeals. After receiving the case file, the appellate court will docket the case and send the attorneys for the defendant and state briefing deadlines. The attorneys will submit their briefs—these are carefully researched written legal arguments—and the court will issue an opinion either affirming the conviction or reversing the conviction. If the conviction is reversed, then the case goes back down to the trial court for a new trial or, in circumstances where double jeopardy has attached, the prosecutor will dismiss the case. If the conviction is affirmed, the defendant can petition a higher court for further review or attempt a collateral attack on the conviction through a habeas corpus action.
Arguing the Best Issues
When addressing trial errors, a seasoned appellate attorney knows not to take the shot-gun approach and list every conceivable error that occurred at trial. Rather, the best strategy is to narrow down the errors to the two or three strongest and argue those strenuously. It is rare for any trial to contain more than one reversible error, which means that in any given brief there is, at best, only one good issue. This is why an excessive list of errors is going to hurt an attorney’s credibility and distract the court’s attention from the stronger issues. This is an important point because all too often defendants, eagerly waiting in prison, believe the more issues addressed the better their chance for freedom and will pressure their attorneys to proceed accordingly. Unfortunately, this strategy has the opposite effect in that it diminishes the effectiveness of the brief and, consequently, lessens the chance of a reversal.
The types of errors that can occur at trial are manifold. They range from problems with jury selection to improper opening statements, to the erroneous admission of prejudicial evidence, to faulty instructions to the jury. In many cases, the attorney taking the appeal is not the one who conducted the trial. Often, the reason for this is because the appellate attorney has been hired to review not only the trial but the trial attorney’s performance at trial. If the trial attorney has committed significant errors in conducting the trial, the defendant will be able to make a 6th Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Under this claim, the defendant argues trial counsel’s errors were so significant that the defendant was essentially denied the right to counsel as guaranteed by the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The appellate process is complex and specialized and should only be handled by an experienced appellate attorney. Having produced over 20 opinions from the Georgia Court of Appeals and Georgia Supreme Court, our firm is well equipped to handle your criminal appeals case. Contact us today to discuss your needs.