If I Lost My Case at Trial, Do I Have the Right to Appeal?

The legal system is not perfect. In some cases, juries make mistakes. Their mistakes are usually prompted by the mistakes made by prosecutors and judges. Fortunately, whenever a jury returns a guilty verdict, the defendant has a right to appeal.

What Is an Appeal?

It is important to understand that an appeal is not a second trial. In most cases, an appeal consists of a review of transcripts and court rulings to decide whether legal errors deprived the defendant of a fair trial.

The judges who hear an appeal can decide whether the trial evidence was sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but they do not decide whether they believe the government’s evidence. They are required to view evidence that supports the verdict as credible. That rule recognizes the difference between juries, which decide the facts, and judges, who decide the law.

Since challenges to the facts rarely succeed in an appeal, lawyers focus on challenges to the court’s legal rulings. Some of those rulings are made before trial, when judges grant or deny motions. Other rulings are made during trial, when judges decide whether to sustain or overrule objections to the evidence. Rulings made after the trial are important when a defendant challenges the sentence that the court imposed.

Challenges made on appeal are usually based on a judge’s failure to understand and apply the law correctly. When judges misunderstand the defendant’s constitutional rights, or when they fail to follow precedential decisions that should guide the court’s ruling, a defendant can ask an appellate court to grant a new trial.

What Issues Are Commonly Raised in an Appeal?

Lawyers begin their work on an appeal by reviewing all the documents that were filed in the trial court, as well as transcripts of important hearings. Any time a judge makes a ruling, the lawyer will ask whether the ruling was legally correct. If it was not, the judge’s error can be challenged on appeal.

Errors raised on appeal may include:

  • The judge’s denial of a motion to dismiss the charges
  • The judge’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence
  • A violation of the defendant’s right to a speedy trial
  • The judge’s denial of a motion to exclude testimony by the prosecution’s expert witness (including testimony based on “junk science” or discredited theories)
  • The judge’s refusal to strike a biased juror
  • The judge’s decision to allow a prosecution witness to give inadmissible testimony
  • A violation of the defendant’s right to confront witnesses
  • The judge’s decision to exclude admissible evidence that supports the defense
  • A violation of the defendants’ right to compel witnesses to testify
  • A violation of the defendant’s right to testify
  • The judge’s refusal to allow the defense to raise certain defenses (such as a defense based on battered woman’s syndrome)
  • The judge’s refusal to strike improper statements made during a prosecutor’s opening statement or closing argument
  • The judge’s refusal to give necessary jury instructions that the defense requested
  • The judge’s decision to give improper jury instructions that the prosecution requested
  • A prosecutor’s deliberate misconduct (such as concealing evidence that favors the defense)
  • Basing a sentence on improper factors or inaccurate information
  • In federal cases, basing a sentence on a misunderstanding of the federal sentencing guidelines

Each case is different, so the selection of issues — including issues that are not listed above — will depend on the motions that were filed and the objections that were made in the trial court.

Can I Take My Case to the Supreme Court?

Every defendant is entitled to one appeal. In a case prosecuted in an Iowa District Court, an appeal is filed with the Iowa Supreme Court. Most of those appeals are then reassigned to the Iowa Court of Appeals. Some appeals, however, are retained in the Iowa Supreme Court, which makes a final decision.

A decision by the Iowa Court of Appeals can be reviewed by the Iowa Supreme Court, but that review is discretionary. In most cases, the Iowa Court of Appeals will be the only court that decides an appeal from a conviction in District Court. If the appeal raises important questions of law that may affect other cases, however, the Iowa Supreme Court may decide to exercise its discretion to review the Court of Appeals’ decision.

A decision by the Iowa Supreme Court, as well as a decision by the Court of Appeals that is not reviewed by the Iowa Supreme Court, can be reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals. That review is also discretionary. The United States Supreme Court hears less than 2% of the criminal cases it is asked to review, so most decisions of Iowa’s appellate courts are final decisions.

In a case prosecuted in a federal court in Iowa, the defendant has the right to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. A decision of that court can be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, but that review is again discretionary. Most decisions by the Eighth Circuit are final decisions.

Can I Take a Second Appeal?

Defendants are entitled to bring one appeal. They should raise all of their issues on that appeal because they will not be given a chance to bring a second appeal.

There are some other mechanisms, however, that might allow errors to be raised, either before or after an appeal. For example, new evidence that is not discovered until after the trial ends can sometimes be presented to the trial court in a motion for a new trial.

If an appeal raises issues involving federal constitutional rights, a defendant who has exhausted all appeals available in Iowa courts can pursue habeas corpus relief in federal court. That process is now known as a “2254 motion” because the statute that authorizes federal courts to conduct the review is section 2254 of Title 18 of the United States Code.

A 2254 motion is filed in federal district court. The motion must usually be filed within one year after all state court appeals are resolved. If the motion is denied, the defendant has the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

The process of appealing or pursuing other avenues of relief is complex. An experienced Iowa criminal appeals lawyer is in the best position to advise defendants of their options.

Call Law Office of Raphael M. Scheetz to discuss how we can help you.


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