Because most people have never been through a criminal trial, much less an appeal, there are a variety of misconceptions about the appellate process. If you plan to pursue an appeal, you may wish to learn more about the types of issues you may attack on appeal in a criminal case.
First, a basic understanding of the purpose and goal of an appeal is necessary. An appeal is not another opportunity to try your case. Except in rare instances, no new evidence can be presented during the appellate process. To successfully pursue an appeal, a defendant must typically claim that an error occurred during trial. Furthermore, the defendant must show that the error was not a “harmless error.” In other words, that there is a reasonable likelihood that the error affected the outcome of the trial.
Because each case is unique, the best source for information about your appeal is an attorney in Massachusetts with a wealth of appellate experience. Although there are some frequently appealed issues, whether or not those issues are present in your specific case can only be determined by a knowledgeable lawyer. Some of those common issues, along with a brief explanation, include:
- Improper jury instructions – before the jury begins deliberations the judge reads a set of jury instructions intended to help the jury reach a verdict. Incorrect jury instructions have, historically, resulted in more overturned convictions than any other legal issues.
- Improperly admitted/excluded evidence – during the course of a trial a judge typically makes dozens of rulings about the admission or exclusion of evidence. Often, a judge allows the government to introduce evidence against a defendant that is either unfairly prejudicial, hopelessly flawed, or irrelevant.
- Insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction–although the jury returned one or more guilty verdicts, it is possible that the evidence upon which the jury could have reached was legally inadequate. Be advised, however, that the appellate court will consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the government.
- Challenges to pre-trial rulings – before a criminal trial even begins, the Court will rule on numerous pre-trial motions in limine. By filing motions in limine, the parties are seeking pre-trial rulings on the admissibility of questionable evidence or even trial tactics. If the judge ruled on one or more of these motions incorrectly, it may be a viable basis for appealing your conviction.
- Jury misconduct–though very few convictions have been overturned because of juror misconduct, it is becoming far more commonplace, especially with the growing and widespread use of social media. If you believe that a juror, while the trial was in progress, posted something online about the trial, researched either the law, facts, or people involved in the case, communicated with another trial participant, or some other way conducted himself inappropriately, contact a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.
- Ineffective assistance of counsel–while appellate courts have overturned convictions because of the mistakes or shortcomings of trial counsel, these courts require something more than a general allegation that the trial attorney’s malfeasance, stupidity, or neglect resulted in a guilty verdict. To prevail on appeal, or in a motion for a new trial, the defendant must demonstrate that “there has been serious incompetency, inefficiency, or inattention of counsel – behavior of counsel falling measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer” that “likely deprived the defendant of an otherwise available, substantial ground of defense.”Commonwealth v. Saferian, 366 Mass. 89, 96 (1974); Commonwealth v. Martin, 427 Mass. 816 (1998). If you believe that your trial attorney’s performance deprived you of a fair trial, contact us.
While there are numerous sources where additional information about appellate issues can be found, only an experienced Massachusetts criminal appeals attorney can provide you with advice regarding how those issues relate to your specific trial and appeal.