Most criminal cases don’t go to trial where a judge or a jury decides if the person accused of a crime, called the “defendant,” committed the crime. Rather, more often than not, the defendant is convicted, or found “guilty,” after he enters a guilty plea – he agrees to admit to committing the crime in exchange for some favorable treatment, like the promise of a light sentence or punishment. Then, after the plea is accepted by a judge, the defendant is sentenced and, technically, the case is over.

That doesn’t always mean the end of things, though. It’s not uncommon for a defendant to “appeal” or challenge his conviction or sentence. He may do this for any number of reasons, but usually an appeal is filed in an effort to get the conviction thrown out or the sentenced lowered.

Appeal Basics

What exactly is an “appeal?” In simple terms, an appeal is when one side of the case – either the prosecution or the defendant (on appeal, the defendant is called the “appellant”) – doesn’t like the outcome of the case and asks another judge or a higher court to look at the case again for errors or mistakes. Generally, the court or judge on appeal doesn’t re-weigh the facts or the evidence. That is, the court or the judge doesn’t make a new, independent decision about whether you actually committed the crime. Rather, they’ll look at the case to see if the judge who made the decision, in this case the judge who accepted your guilty plea and/or sentenced you, made some sort of a legal mistake that makes the conviction or sentence unfair or unlawful.

There are very strict rules that need to be followed in an appeal. There are separate rules for federal courts, and each state has its own rules, which are usually very similar to the federal rules. To start an appeal, you need to file certain form with the clerk of the court where you entered your plea. In the federal courts, and many state courts, this form is called a notice of appeal.

One of the most important rules to keep in mind has to do with how long you have to file your notice of appeal. If you don’t file it within the time allowed, it’s very likely that a new court or judge won’t look at your case. Generally, in federal courts, you have to file the notice within 10 days after the judgment or order you’re appealing (either your conviction or sentence) is entered into the court records. This time period may be different if your case was in state court.

An appeal is usually a complicated process, so you need to carefully read the rules for the court where the appeal will be heard to make sure you’re doing things right. It is possible to handle the appeal by yourself, but it’s usually not advisable. If you’re thinking about filing an appeal, you should talk your attorney. 

Appeal Your Conviction

As a general rule, every criminal defendant has the right to appeal his conviction, even if the conviction came after a guilty plea. However, when it comes to guilty pleas, it’s not easy to “win” on appeal. That’s because you admitted to committing the crime, and if the judge and the prosecution did everything properly when you entered your plea, you were told about the consequences of your plea and you agreed to and accepted those consequences. In other words, you pled guilty, knew what you were doing when you entered the plea, and so now you’ve got nothing to complain about.

In most cases when there’s an appeal after a guilty plea, the appellant claims that the conviction is no good because the plea wasn’t made knowingly, intelligently, and/or voluntarily. That is, you didn’t understand what you were doing when you pled guilty, or the judge didn’t tell you everything she was supposed to. This isn’t always easy to do, but you may be successful on your appeal if you can show that, for example:

  • When you appeared before the judge to enter your plea, the judge didn’t’t tell you all or some of the important rights that you were “waiving” or giving up with your plea, such as your rights to a jury trial, to confront the witnesses against you, and to have every element of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. There’s a federal rule that sets out what you have to be told, and most states have a similar rule
  • Someone threatened you or your family with physical violence if you refused to plead guilty, and so your plea was “coerced” and not voluntary
  • The prosecution promised you something that it knew you weren’t going to get, like probation as a sentence for a very serious crime, or made other “improper inducements” to get you to agree to the plea
  • The prosecution broke or “breached” the plea bargain; it didn’t keep its part of the deal. For example, if the prosecution agreed to drop certain charges in exchange for your agreement to testify against a co-defendant, and you do so, but the prosecution charges you anyway
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