Dec 22, 2023

How the Appeals Process Works in the Criminal Court System

The appeal process in the criminal court system is a critical component of legal proceedings, particularly in the context of true crime research. Understanding this process is essential for researchers, podcasters, and anyone interested in the workings of the justice system. This article offers an in-depth look at how the appeal process functions within the criminal courts, providing a comprehensive guide to this often-complex procedure.

The Essence of an Appeal

At its core, an appeal is a request to a higher court to review and change the decision of a lower court. It’s crucial to note that an appeal is not a retrial or a new trial but a review of the legal process of the original trial. The appellant, who is the party appealing the decision, argues that there were errors in the way the law was applied or interpreted.

Grounds for Appeal

Appeals are predicated on specific grounds, typically centered around legal errors. These may include misinterpretation of the law, improper admission or exclusion of evidence, and insufficient evidence to support a verdict. In some cases, appeals can be based on new evidence, but this is less common.

The Appeal Process: A Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Filing a Notice of Appeal: The first step in the appeal process is for the appellant to file a notice of appeal with the court. This must be done within a set timeframe after the conviction – usually within 30 days.
  2. Preparing the Record on Appeal: The next step involves preparing the official record, which includes transcripts of court proceedings, evidence presented, and any other relevant documents from the trial.
  3. Briefing: Both parties in the appeal – the appellant and the respondent (usually the state) – must submit briefs. These written documents outline their arguments, with the appellant’s brief detailing why the decision should be overturned and the respondent’s brief defending the trial’s outcome.
  4. Oral Argument: In many cases, the higher court will hold an oral argument. During this phase, attorneys from both sides present their arguments and answer the judges’ questions.
  5. Deliberation and Decision: After reviewing the briefs and hearing the oral arguments, the appellate court will deliberate. This process can take several months, as the judges meticulously review the case.
  6. Opinion Issuance: The court will eventually issue an opinion. This can affirm the original decision, reverse it, or remand the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Levels of Appeal

  1. Intermediate Appellate Courts: Most appeals first go to an intermediate appellate court. In the United States, these are often state courts of appeal or federal circuit courts.
  2. Supreme Court: If the case is of significant legal importance, or if there’s a substantial issue regarding the constitution, it might be taken to the highest court, such as the State Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court. However, these courts have discretion over which cases they hear.

Limitations and Considerations

  • No Automatic Right: Not all cases are eligible for appeal. There must be a perceivable legal basis for the appeal.
  • Limited Scope: The appellate court only reviews matters that were raised in the original trial. New allegations or evidence are generally not considered.
  • No Guarantee of Reversal: An appeal does not automatically imply a reversal of the verdict. Many appeals result in the original decision being upheld.
  • Time and Cost: The appeal process can be lengthy and expensive, often taking years and incurring significant legal fees.


The appeal process is a fundamental aspect of the criminal justice system, offering a pathway for reviewing and potentially correcting legal errors made in trial courts. For true crime researchers and enthusiasts, understanding this process is key to grasping the intricacies of legal proceedings and the pursuit of justice. While appeals can be complex and time-consuming, they represent a critical check and balance in the justice system, ensuring fairness and accuracy in legal adjudication. As we explore and narrate true crime stories, acknowledging and understanding the nuances of the appeal process enhances our ability to convey these narratives with depth, accuracy, and respect for the judicial process.

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