If convicted in federal district court, a criminal defendant as a matter of law has a right to have the conviction reviewed by an appellate court. However, the convicted defendant does not have the right to challenge findings of fact made adverse to him. Instead, a defendant may only appeal for a review of alleged errors of law that originally denied him of a fair trial on the merits and/or denied him due process of law. In short, it is not the function of an appellate court to second-guess the fact finder in the court below. The Appeals Court review is limited to a legal review of the trial record to make sure that the defendant was accorded due process of law and received a fair trial on the merits of his case. If not, the defendant will be awarded a new trial for if the defendant’s rights were denied, the adverse factual determination may have been tainted by the legal error committed.
It is presumed on appeal that a defendant has received a fair trial on the merits and has been accorded due process of law. If a convicted criminal defendant is to be successful in obtaining a reversal of his conviction, he must overcome this presumption of regularity and demonstrate from the record made of the trial court proceedings that some legal error denied him the right to a fair trial. In this regard, some examples are in order to illustrate these principles.
If a black person is accused of violating federal law, and during the jury selection process all potential black jurors are excused by the prosecution and he is thereafter tried and convicted by an all white jury, such a defendant, if he can establish that the prosecution excused all potential black jurors solely on the basis of their race, will be awarded a new trial without regard to consideration by the appellate court of the quantum of evidence the court possesses which is adverse to the defendant. This is because such a defendant could not receive due process of law and a fair trial by a jury of his peers if the government was able to excuse potential jurors from serving for discriminatory and invidious reasons.
In a separate hypothetical context, if the convicted defendant was subjected to an illegal search and seizure without legal justification and evidence obtained from such seizure is introduced against him at his trial, he may be entitled to a new trial, without regard to strength of the rest of the government’s evidence against him. Again, the obvious reason is because the introduction of illegally seized evidence would deprive the defendant of his Fourth Amendment rights.
Hopefully, these illustrations will serve to aid the reader in comprehension of the function of the federal appellate process. Laymen typically believe that criminal defendants are automatically entitled to new or repeat trials for almost any reason that suits the whim or fancy of an appellate tribunal. However, this common misconception has absolutely no basis in fact or law. As noted, the appellate function is normally limited to a review of the record to make sure that the defendant received the fair trial guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States. If any error occurred substantially affecting that right, the defendant will receive relief on appeal. Absent such error, the defendant’s appeal will be rejected and any sentence imposed, provided that it was legally imposed, will be upheld as well.
Although a criminal defendant is entitled to a fair trial, he is not entitled to a perfect one. In any human endeavor, mistakes are likely to occur. However, as demonstrated in all of the preceding chapters, the federal civil system is designed to eliminate as much of the potential for error as is humanly possible and to ensure that a defendant’s constitutional due process rights are scrupulously observed at all stages of the proceedings. Of course, the system is only as good as are those who implement it. Thus, if an inept prosecutor, judge or criminal defense attorney commits some error substantially affecting the defendant’s due process, the Appeals Court is available to remedy the problem.
After the fact of any criminal trial, it is easy for any convicted defendant dissatisfied with the result of his trial to allege that he was somehow denied a fair trial. Because there is the presumption of regularity aforementioned, however, the complaining defendant must demonstrate on appeal according to established legal precedent that he has in fact been denied due process of law before he will be successful on appeal. Indeed, ninety (90%) percent of all federal criminal trials reviewed on appeal are upheld without modification.
We have seen that the courts are very zealous in their protection of individual rights as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Appellate courts were established to ensure that no person would be deprived of the liberties afforded to him by the Constitution unless the government, according to due process of law, demonstrated that the criminal defendant was subject to a loss of his liberty because of some stated violation of federal criminal law. For those few who do receive a new trial after succeeding in their appeal, a large percentage of some are ultimately convicted again. However, if convicted after a second trial, such a defendant once again has a right to an appellate review of the second trial to make sure once again that he was accorded due process of law. Again, the function of the appellate process is the same as that of the entire federal process, to ensure that no person in the United States is deprived of his/her liberty without due process of law. According to established legal precedent, if, at any point in the proceedings, from arrest through indictment and trial, a defendant’s rights are violated in some substantial way, the appellate court will protect him from such error and will require appropriate relief before such a defendant can be potentially deprived of his liberty.
The rules of appellate procedure are not overly elaborate. In a typical criminal case, a notice of appeal must be filed within fourteen (14) days after the entry of the judgment or order appealed from for the right of appeal to be preserved. Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(b). Interlocutory appeals may sometimes be taken before the jury has spoken and sentence imposed, but some appeals are rare and limited to very narrow legal issues.