A guide for people looking for a criminal appeals attorney who can handle their criminal appeal, whether it’s a conviction or a sentence.
I get a lot of calls from people who understandably want to help their loved ones who have been convicted of a crime, says John Helms a top criminal appeals attorney based in Dallas, TX. For most people, criminal appeals are a complete mystery. Not surprisingly, most people have no experience with them and know very little about them. This is a basic guide for people who are interested in hiring a criminal defense lawyer to appeal a conviction or sentence.
What Is An Appeal? This may sound basic, but there are a lot of misconceptions about exactly what an appeal is. A criminal appeal is a request to a higher court to tell a trial court that it did something wrong so that either the defendant’s conviction or sentence must be corrected.
An appeal is NOT a way to ask for a second opinion. An appeals court generally will not step in unless the trial court made a legal error or clearly got something wrong. In most situations, other than errors about the law, even if an appeals court might disagree with what happened at trial, if what happened was reasonable, an appeals court will let it stand. This is because, otherwise, tremendous numbers of cases might have to be tried over and over again, and lots of appeals would take forever to decide. If this happened, the Justice System would grind to a halt.
Also, even if the trial judge got something wrong, an appeals court will let it stand unless it really affected the outcome of the trial. A minor mistake that did not affect the result is what is called “harmless error.” Think of it this way: In a basketball game, if a referee makes a mistake on a foul call, but the team that got the call wins by 10 points, we would not say that the game should have to be played over again.
So, an appeal is a basically a way to point out serious errors that probably affected the result at trial. There are limits to a defendant’s ability to appeal, though.
Here are the questions I ask people who tell me they want to appeal a criminal judgment:
- When was the person convicted, and has a notice of appeal been filed?
If the judgment of conviction was more than 30 days ago (or more than 14 days in a federal case), it may be too late, unless a notice of appeal has already been filed. I have had relatives of defendants call about an appeal from a loved one’s conviction from years in the past. Unfortunately, that is way too late for a direct appeal.
If it is too late to file a direct appeal, the rules become different, the options become very limited, and the chances of success become very low. When people call me long after the time to appeal has passed and want me to try to come up with something that might help, I usually tell them that if they are willing to pay me to spend time looking, I am willing to look, but it is not very likely that I will find something helpful at that point.
- Was there a guilty plea or a trial?
This is important for a few reasons. First, especially in federal criminal cases, if there is a guilty plea, the defendant has often given up his or her right to appeal as part of the plea agreement, except some very narrow issues. This is called “waiving” your right to appeal. If there has been a waiver, the defendant’s ability to appeal is very limited.
Second, if the defendant has pleaded guilty, as a practical matter, there are fewer arguments on appeal that might be successful, since the defendant has admitted guilt.
- If it is too late for a direct appeal (see question 1), or if there was a guilty plea (see question 2), do you know of any argument that you think could be made?
Occasionally, in this situation, the person seeking my help may know of a reason that could justify relief after a conviction. This is pretty rare, though. Most of the time, the person contacting me is, understandably, looking for someone to give them hope. Unfortunately, if it is too late for a direct appeal, or there was a guilty plea, or both, I will probably have to tell them that they can hire me, but the chances of actually finding an issue with potential are low, and I cannot represent that I will even be able to find an argument that would justify filing something with a court.
I certainly do not enjoy letting people down, but I would much rather be honest with them than get their hopes up unrealistically and take their money based on false hope.
A timely appeal from a conviction at trial is very different. In that situation, the rules and the law are not nearly as stacked against the defendant. That situation is when a good criminal appeal lawyer can really make a difference.
If you, a family member or someone you know has been convicted of a crime and need help with an appeal in the Dallas area, contact criminal appeal attorney John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.