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Understanding Criminal Appeals in Pennsylvania

In the United States, our Constitution affords us the right to due process, and part of that is the right to appeal a court's decision. That means if your criminal trial did not conclude with the outcome you had hoped, you may be able to appeal if sufficient grounds are present. Keep in mind: an appeal is not the same thing as a new trial. Many defendants also think that if they appeal, they can introduce new evidence, but that is only another misconception about criminal appeals. Criminal appeals in Pennsylvania are only permissible in certain situations, and neither retrying the case nor admitting new evidence are grounds for, or occur during, an appeal.

It's best not to navigate the criminal justice system on your own. At Mike Sherman Law, our PA appeals lawyer in Pittsburgh will explain what your options are if you are found guilty and then sentenced. If an appeal is appropriate, we will discuss with you what that may involve. It can be costly to appeal, so you always want to start your criminal defense off right by hiring a criminal defense lawyer who will fight to uphold your rights and seek the best outcome. Call us today at (412) 471-5000 to schedule a FREE Consultation if you have been arrested and charged with a crime or if you have been found guilty and want to appeal.

What is a Criminal Appeal?

During a criminal appeal, the defendant asks a higher (appellate) court to review and either reverse or modify a lower (trial) court's decision. The party appealing the trial court's decision is the appellant (sometimes called the petitioner). The other party is called the appellee (or the respondent).

When a defendant is found guilty after a trial, they have a right to appeal the verdict. The prosecution, on the other hand, cannot appeal an acquittal. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits double jeopardy, which means you cannot be tried twice for the same criminal allegation. Both the prosecution and the defense, however, can appeal a defendant's sentence as well as any interim decisions made by a judge, like the admissibility of certain evidence. 

Appellate courts are concerned with legal errors. They do not hear evidence or make findings of fact as to whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. An appellate court examines a trial for any potential errors in terms of procedure, the law that was applied, and how it was applied.

The appellant files a notice of appeal, and upon filing this notice, the clock starts ticking for the appellant to file a brief. The brief states the facts and the law, explaining why the trial court's decision must be reversed. The appellee has an opportunity to respond with an answering brief. Then, the appellant may respond with a second brief that answers the appellee's brief.

The appellate court may decide the case based on the written briefs, or they may hear oral arguments.

Grounds for a Criminal Appeal in Pennsylvania

The specific grounds of an appeal will vary from case to case. Ultimately, an appellant must show that the lower court made a substantial or material error during the trial, i.e., one that affected the outcome of the trial. A harmless error, even if an error, will not change the outcome of the lower court's decision.

The most common grounds given for a criminal appeal in Pennsylvania include but are not limited to sentencing errors, the serious error of law, abuse of discretion, ineffective counsel, improper jury conduct, and prosecutorial misconduct.

Sentencing Error

Just like everything else in the criminal justice system, there are rules a judge must follow when sentencing a defendant after a conviction. When sentencing rules are ignored, the sentence is considered illegal, and an appellate court will remand the matter back to the lower court for resentencing. Though this type of appeal does not reverse the trial decision's guilty verdict nor does it allow for a new trial, it often leads to reduced or more favorable sentences.

Serious error of law

A defendant may file an appeal because the trial court made an error in how they applied the law to the facts. For example, if the judge gave incorrect instructions to the jury on a legal issue or miscalculated the sentence, that may be ground for an appeal. 

Abuse of discretion

A trial judge has wide discretion when ruling on pretrial motions and legal issues that arise during a trial. A party can appeal an interim ruling that was clearly unreasonable, erroneous, arbitrary, or unsupported by the facts or law. 

Ineffective counsel

A defendant has a constitutional right to adequate representation during their trial. If a trial lawyer's representation was so poor that it resulted in an unfair trial, this may provide a defendant with the basis for an appeal.  

Improper jury conduct

A defendant may appeal their conviction if a juror acted improperly during the trial or deliberations. For example, if a juror speaks directly to a witness, that could be grounds for an appeal. 

Prosecutorial Misconduct

When prosecutors engage in dishonest or abusive acts in an effort to persuade a judge or jury of a defendant's guilt and those abusive acts were prejudicial and harmed the defendant's case, there may be grounds for appeal. Prosecutorial misconduct must be of the nature that even if a judge instructed the jury to disregard the improper act, the jury finds it hard to do, and that impacts the way they decide the case. Examples of prosecutorial misconduct include a prosecutor commenting on inadmissible evidence before the jurors, intentionally misstating what the law says, or appealing to the jury's prejudices.

Possible Outcomes of a Criminal Appeal in Pennsylvania

After considering an appeal, an appellate court's decision may be one of many. The appellate court may:

  • Affirm the trial court's decision and uphold the conviction and sentence 
  • Reverse, or overrule, the trial court's decision
  • Remand, or return, the case to the trial court for a full retrial, resentence, or reconsideration of a specific part of the trial based on the appellate court's finding
  • Modify a sentence

An appellate court can also dismiss an appeal on procedural issues, such as a lack of jurisdiction. 

Contact a Criminal Appeals Lawyer in Pittsburgh Today

Criminal appeals involve a highly specialized area of law that has the potential to significantly alter the outcome of the trial court's decision. So, if you are considering appealing the outcome of your criminal trial, it's worth speaking to a criminal appeals attorney in Pittsburgh.

At Mike Sherman Law, our Pennsylvania appeals attorney has the skill and resources to help you file a timely appeal and strategically argue your case. Not only can we provide you with advice, but we will also review your trial with fresh eyes to identify all potential grounds for appeal. Contact us today either by filling out the online form or calling us at (412) 471-5000 to schedule a FREE Consultation.

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