What Factors Can Lead The Appellate Court To Reverse A Conviction?
Several factors can lead the appellate court to reverse a conviction. First, we must convince the appellate court that the lawyer representing the appellant was ineffective, that the prosecution crossed a line, or the trial court made a legal error such as allowing evidence to be heard by a jury that should not have been heard or disallowing evidence from being heard by the jury that should have been heard. After we show the appellate court the error the trial level, we normally must convince the appellate court that the appellant has preserved the error for review. We must show the appellate court either that the appellant brought the error to the trial court’s attention, or that the particular error falls within a category of errors that do not require preservation.
If you watch television you have seen how in a trial a lawyer stands up and says “Objection, your honor.” That’s what we are talking about when we say preservation. We are talking about an error that the defense lawyer brings to the attention of the trial court, and obtains a ruling by the trial court. If that ruling is wrong, and then if the appellant objected, we have preserved it for review.
There are certain errors, that do not require preservation. Those tend to be much more serious errors that may have led to a miscarriage of justice, or which may implicate an important right. But generally, one must preserve the error for review by making an objection at the trial level.
Next, we must address whether the error caused harm. Often, a trial court makes an error, and the trial lawyer objects, but in the view of the appellate court, that error did not affect the verdict. If you read enough appellate decisions, you will see that there is, over and again, reference to trials not being error free. However, not every error results in the reversal of a conviction. We have to establish in some way that this error was not just a little error, that it may have affected the verdict itself, and then we’ve established that it causes harm.
If we can show all three of these—the error, the preservation, and the harm—then we have a good chance of gaining relief from the appellate decision. If we miss on any of them, our chances on appeal will diminish.
If Someone Loses Their Appeal Case, Are There Any Further Steps That Can Be Taken?
The losing party in the appeal can always seek leave to appeal from New York’s top court, the Court of Appeals. If the losing party can show that he or she raised a federal question, he or she may be able to seek review in the federal courts, all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Sometimes when you read the case, you realize that there may be a remedy still at the trial court. Sometimes the appellate court will say these errors that are being raised by the appellant are off the record, because they did not appear in the record. In those cases, it may be possible to appear before the trial court again, and move to set aside the verdict or a judgement. The trial court may require a hearing to determine if the claims we make about what occurred off the record are true. If it agrees the claims are true, it could afford a remedy not available on appeal because the record lacks that information.
Often these off the record concerns pertain to the attorney-client relationship—that the appellant is making arguments that his attorney coerced him into pleading guilty, or his attorney did not investigate the case. That will never appear on the record, because these are conversations happened in the jail, the lawyer’s office, or the investigation that either did or did not happen outside the court process. Because of this, they are not part of the trial. If the appellant can establish this, to the trial court’s satisfaction, there may be a remedy in the trial court even after the appeal.
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