What is a Direct Appeal?

scales of justice sitting on desk with paperwork - direct appeal concept

If the outcome of your criminal trial wasn’t as expected due to an error made in the case, you can file a direct appeal. A direct appeal can be taken immediately after a trial in which a defendant was convicted and sentenced. This process allows for the opportunity to have the conviction and sentence reviewed by a higher court to determine whether an error was made. However, it’s crucial to understand that there is a specific process for bringing a direct appeal — it must be prepared, filed, and served correctly to avoid losing the right to appeal.

When Can You File a Direct Appeal?

Direct appeals are available in both the federal and state court systems. Critically, a direct appeal is not a new trial, but it is a request that the higher court review the case to correct an error in the lower court’s decision. Errors that may be brought to the attention of the appeals court can be those made at any phase of the lower court’s process — including before trial, during plea negotiations, during trial, and at sentencing.

There are several grounds upon which a criminal case may be appealed, such as:

  • Legal errors — Legal errors that can give rise to an appeal include lack of sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict, improper jury instructions, improperly admitted evidence, or prosecutorial misconduct.
  • Juror misconduct — A defendant may be entitled to appeal a conviction if juror misconduct took place by discussing the case with non-jurors, taking a bribe, or considering evidence that wasn’t presented at trial.
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel — If a criminal defense attorney failed to provide competent representation, the defendant may be able to appeal on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.

There are different standards of review that might be used by an appellate court to determine whether the direct appeal is granted or denied. The appellate court may review the lower court’s decision for abuse of discretion, clear error, or plain error. It may also conduct a de novo review, in which the appellate court will use the lower court’s record but rule on legal issues without giving deference.

What is the Direct Appeal Process?

Upon conviction, a defendant can appeal to the higher tribunal by filing a notice of appeal. However, the court in which the appeal will be heard depends upon whether the case was tried in federal or state court. For instance, if your case was brought in federal court, the appeal would be heard in the Circuit Court of Appeals for that specific region. If your case was tried in a New York or New Jersey state court, your appeal would be heard by the state’s Appellate Division. The federal and state court systems have their own distinct rules and procedures for filing and presenting a direct appeal.

Often, the appeals court will decide the matter on the written briefs alone. But in some cases, oral arguments will be held to clarify questions of fact or law. In the event the court finds that there are significant issues in your case upon its review, the case may be referred back to the trial court for correction. The appellate court may also overturn a conviction completely.

If the appeals court affirms the decision made by the lower court, and you lose the appeal, you may have the option to take the appeal one step further. For a New York state criminal case, this would mean appealing to the Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in New York. In New Jersey, the highest appellate court is the New Jersey Supreme Court. For a federal criminal case, you can request that the United States Supreme Court hear the matter.

Importantly, with the direct appeal process, the case is not being argued again before a jury. Nor is a direct appeal an opportunity to present new evidence. Rather, you are establishing that the lower court made an error in the case that denied you a fair trial or adversely affected the outcome. Only issues that were heard by the lower court and appear on the record can be argued in a direct appeal.

What’s the Difference Between a Direct Appeal and Post-Conviction Motion?

It’s essential to understand the difference between a direct appeal and a post-conviction motion. While a criminal appeal is filed with the higher court, a motion for post-conviction relief is filed with the original trial court. A post-conviction motion is a mechanism that can be used when seeking to vacate a conviction by bringing facts to the court’s attention that weren’t contained in the trial court record.

Contact an Experienced Direct Appeals Attorney

If an error was made by the lower court in your criminal case, you may be entitled to file a direct appeal. But the direct appeal process is complex and requires specific knowledge concerning the rules and procedures. It is best to have an experienced appeals attorney to help ensure the best possible outcome in your case. The knowledgeable appellate attorneys at Hegge & Confusione, LLC are skilled in handling a wide variety of direct appeals before appellate courts. Contact us today for an assessment of your case.