When you are convicted of a crime, you have the right to make an appeal. That right exists in every state and in federal court. It is often the first step that should be taken to challenge an unjust conviction or an unfair sentence.

Courts That Hear Direct Appeals

A direct appeal asks a higher court to review the legality of your conviction or sentence. In federal court, a direct appeal is taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the circuit that has jurisdiction over the federal district in which you were convicted. In state court, a direct appeal is taken to the appropriate state appellate court.

If you do not obtain the relief you request from the court of appeals in a federal case, you can ask the United States Supreme Court to review your case. You do this by filing a petition for a writ of certiorari. You can also ask the United States Supreme Court to review your state court conviction, although you can only seek review of federal issues. This usually means you are claiming the violation of a federal constitutional right, such as an illegal search or a denial of the right to effective assistance of counsel.

To seek Supreme Court review of a state conviction, your conviction must be final. That is, you must have obtained (or been denied) review by the highest court in your state that has the power to review your conviction.

The United States Supreme Court is not required to review state or federal convictions and in most cases it will deny a petition for a writ of certiorari. If you raise a unique or important issue of federal constitutional law, however, the Supreme Court might be willing to take your case.

Grounds for Bringing a Direct Appeal

A direct appeal must be based on the record that exists at the time the appeal is filed. The record generally includes all important documents that are in the court file, including transcripts of important hearings, your trial (if you had one), and your sentence. If you want to rely upon facts that are not in the record, you need to rely upon a different kind of post-conviction relief, such as using a 2255 motion to challenge a federal conviction or sentence.

In your direct appeal, you can point to facts in the record that show you were unjustly convicted or unfairly sentenced. If you made motions before trial (such as a motion to suppress evidence) and those motions were denied, you can base an appeal upon the erroneous denial of those motions. If you entered a guilty plea and the record establishes that you did not know the consequences of that plea or did not understand the charge, you can base an appeal upon your misunderstanding.

If you had a trial, significant errors during the trial can be grounds for an appeal, including the exclusion of evidence that you tried to present, a restriction of your right to cross-examine witnesses, allowing biased jurors to hear your case, prejudicial statements made in front of the jury by a prosecutor, improper jury instructions, or any other issue that affected the fairness of your trial.

Direct Appeal Procedure

A direct review starts by filing a Notice of Appeal within the deadline established by state or federal law. After the record is filed with the appellate court, your lawyer will prepare a written argument called a brief. The brief must conform to the court’s requirements and be filed by a specified deadline unless an extension of time to file has been granted. The brief will raise each of the legal issues that your lawyer deems to have merit.

The government then files a brief in response that answers the claims of error made in your brief. Your lawyer will probably file a reply brief. Depending on the procedures followed by the court in which your appeal is filed, the lawyers may be given the chance to present an oral argument to the appellate judges who will decide your case. This gives the judges a chance to question the lawyers about the arguments they have made.

After the judges have reviewed the arguments and conferred about the appropriate result, they will write a decision that will either affirm your conviction and sentence or provide you with some form of relief. That might include reversing your conviction, granting you a new trial, vacating your sentence, granting you a new sentencing hearing, modifying your sentence, or providing some other form of relief that the court deems just.

Appeals are complicated. They require strict adherence to deadlines and procedures, and they require the skillful presentation of legal arguments with citation to relevant precedents. You need an experienced lawyer to present your appeal properly.