How Does The Appeals Process Work?
After a person is found guilty, their lawyer must file a notice of appeal within 30 days after sentencing (or 90 days if a motion for a new trial was filed). The lawyer gets a copy of the court transcript and prepares an appellate brief arguing for why the guilty verdict should be reversed. The State’s appellate lawyer then files a brief arguing for why the guilty verdict should be affirmed. The lawyer can then file one final brief (called a “reply brief”) arguing why the State is wrong.
Most appeals are decided based on these written briefs. Occasionally, the appeals court will request oral argument and the lawyers for both sides will argue in person in front of the panel of three judges.
Whether oral argument happens or not, the appeals process is a long one, and it can take many months (sometimes over a year) before the appeals court issues a decision.
If the appeals court affirms the conviction, nothing changes. If the appeals court reverses the conviction, the case is sent back to the trial court for a new trial (assuming that the reversal wasn’t based on something that would prevent a new trial, such as double jeopardy or the statute of limitations).
I can’t stress this enough: 99% of the time, winning on appeal just gives you the right to a new trial. It doesn’t mean that your case is dismissed. There have been cases of people winning on appeal, being found guilty during a second trial, and receiving harsher sentences after the second trial!
The losing side in the appeals court has the option of appealing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the highest court in Texas for criminal cases. The Court of Criminal Appeals is composed of nine judges. They choose which criminal cases they want to hear and reject the majority of appeals. This is because the Court of Criminal Appeals is only concerned with hearing cases that have interesting or important legal issues that will affect many other cases. Because most cases are routine, it’s the rare case that will go all the way to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Even rarer is a case that will go from the Court of Criminal Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court hears only about 70-80 cases each year from across the United States. The Supreme Court decides cases that deal with important national legal issues or cases that have divided the federal courts, and they will only hear cases that involve federal law or an issue involving the U.S. Constitution. Very few of the cases the Supreme Court hears each year are state criminal cases.
What Are The Chances That My Conviction Will Be Reversed?
If you look at the statistics for all Texas criminal cases, the odds aren’t great. In 2016, only 3% of criminal cases were reversed on direct appeal.
Post-conviction writs of habeas corpus have a much greater success rate, around 8%. The difference is because almost all convictions are challenged on direct appeal, no matter how unlikely the chance of success. Writs of habeas corpus aren’t filed as often. The 8% success rate is almost certainly artificially low because many habeas writs are filed by prisoners with no help from a lawyer. Though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, the success rate for petitions filed by experienced habeas lawyers is probably much, much higher.
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