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March 4, 2020

Found Guilty: A Discussion of Appeals and Sentence Reductions


Although things can seem very different, getting tried and being found guilty of an offense
constitutes only a part of the criminal justice process. After conviction and sentencing, there
remains a wide variety of procedures through which the conviction or sentence may be challenged.

The conviction and sentence may be challenged on appeal on grounds of being illegal,
unconstitutional or unreasonably excessive. However, succeeding in such appeals will depend on
clearly showing that there were serious errors in the trial that led to a wrong finding of guilt or
inappropriate sentence.

Apart from this, there are several special rules and procedures that must be adhered to, if the
appeals process will be successful. Due to the technical nature of appeals, defendants usually
choose to work with a skilled criminal appeals attorney. But in many instances, an appeal is made
stronger when counsel work with specialist researchers.

At National Legal Professional Associates, we have assisted hundreds of lawyers and their clients
with crucial legal research for successful appeals. We have helped analyze the law and likely issues
and assisted with preparing legal briefs to supplement the defense provided by skilled legal counsel.
This has enabled hundreds of clients' secure better outcomes.

In our more than 25-year experience doing this, we have gained considerable knowledge and
expertise about criminal appeals in the US. In this article, we will provide an overview of the appeals
process and sentence reduction under US law.

Appeals and sentence reductions under US law
Generally, a lawful conviction and sentence cannot be appealed. Although the defendant, through
their lawyer, may take steps to dispute the trial judge’s decision, these will most likely turn out
unsuccessful.

This is because appeals are usually reserved for instances where some “error” has led to injustice
against the defendant. If the situation was such that, had the error been spotted or avoided, the
defendant’s circumstances would have been different, then there may be a case for an appeal.

However, it is usually required that whatever issue is raised by the defendant on appeal must be one
that is borne out by the evidence produced during trial. This means that appeals are not a stage for
a defendant’s attorney to “take another bite at the cherry”. It is not a retrial of the case and no new
issues can be raised on appeal.

Rather, the appellate court will only be looking into the record or transcript of the case to make sure
that the verdict was correct based upon evidence. It will look to ascertain that the trial was fair and
that there was no violation of the defendant’s rights to due process.

Depending on the circumstances of the case and the issues being raised on appeal, a defendant may
request a reduction of the sentence imposed or even reversal of the verdict. Although, the court
may choose to:

  • Affirm the conviction or sentence or both;
  • Reverse the conviction and remand the case for a new trial;
  • Review the sentence imposed by the trial court; or
  • Remand the case to the trial court for additional proceedings

The criminal appeals process
The appeals process usually begins with filing a notice of appeal. In certain cases, the defendant
must ask the court for permission to file the notice before going ahead. The notice of appeal is
usually accompanied by an appellate brief that contains the defendant’s arguments on why the
appeal should succeed.

Typically, these notices are filed to a state or the US Court of Appeals or to the State or US Supreme
Court. However, the right to request a review by a higher court is subject to abiding by statutory
time limits for requesting an appeal. The time limits vary from state to state, sometimes spanning
days or months.

The notice of appeal will typically contain grounds upon which the appeal is founded. These may
include any one of the following:

  • Improper denial of continuance: Being given adequate time to prepare a defense is part of
    the right to a fair trial. If the trial judge improperly refused a continuance during the trial, it
    may be a ground of appeal.
  • The improper imposition of a sentence: Where the sentence was enhanced due to facts
    that were not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the sentence may be challenged. This
    would also be the case where the sentence was partially based on invalid reasons or was not
    preceded by a proper waiver of the right to counsel.
  • Improper or erroneous departures or failure to depart when it was reasonable to do so:
    Although courts follow sentencing guidelines in imposing sentences, a judge may depart
    from these guidelines where discretion is permitted. However, if there was an upward
    departure in relation to an offense where there was no discretion, the sentence may be
    challenged. Likewise, if the legislation permitted a downward departure and facts bore this
    possibility, the sentence may be challenged on the basis that the court made a mistake
    about its authority to depart from the guidelines.
  • Disproportionate sentence: In some states, a defendant may challenge a sentence on
    appeal it was potentially “disproportionate” to the crime. Here, the defendant argues that
    the strict punishment imposed by the court was not borne out by the circumstances. For
    instance, the US Supreme Court in Solem v. Helm held that a life sentence was
    disproportionate for a man who issued a bad check, despite his criminal history.

There are several other grounds on which an appeal may be based. However, the error complained
of in the appeal must be substantial. Not every error alleged by the defendant merits consideration
by the appellate courts or reversal. This is why the courts held in Lutwak v. U.S that a defendant is
entitled to a fair trial, not an error-free one.

Making an appeal after a guilty plea
For conviction and sentences imposed after a plea agreement, the general rule is that the right to
appeal has been waived. The US Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that a
defendant may waive certain constitutional and statutory rights in a plea bargain (the U.S v. Allison).

However, the waiver of such rights is not all-encompassing. Since a plea bargain is essentially a
contract between the defendant and the prosecutor, the court will study the agreement to
determine the limits of the agreement.

For instance, it is taken as a given that where the plea bargain promised a two-level reduction in
liability in exchange for a guilty plea or assistance, the waiver only operates with respect to the two-
point reduction. If the actual sentence is an upward departure from the terms of the bargain, the
defendant will be entitled to challenge the sentence on appeal.

There are several other instances where a challenge may be brought. This includes when the plea
was based on incomplete facts or information supplied by the prosecutor. It was held in U.S v.
Mezzanatto
that a waiver of an important constitutional right must be known and voluntary.

In all circumstances, defendants who have access to the right resources can have an expert team
thoroughly study their case and determine what options are available to secure a better outcome on
appeal.

We can assist with your appeal
At NLPA, the range of assistance we are able to provide defendants and their attorneys are made
possible by the depth of our knowledge of the US appeals process. Whether your aim is to withdraw
a guilty plea or challenge a conviction or sentence on other grounds, we can help. Contact us to
speak with one of our consultants
who can advise on the range of assistance we can provide.

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