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How to Challenge a Federal Criminal Conviction

October 11, 2021

Federal courts are places where lawyers argue on behalf of clients charged with a felony offense. The federal court system only hears felony cases, which relate to offenses against the federal government’s powers, agents or agencies. These federal cases are heard by a federal judge who has the authority to convict the defendant of the felony crime. The sentencing penalties and fines tend to be stricter than the ones given for offenses heard in state courts. [1]

Appealing a Conviction

Once a conviction is reached, the defendant might think that is the end of the proceedings. However, there is an appeal process in place for defendants who want their defense lawyers to argue that it was a wrongful conviction. After the court reaches a decision in the case, there is a process of going through the appellate court system. This federal judicial system functions as an independent institution of power. This happened through the allocation of powers to different branches, and the federal judiciary operates as a manifestation of this concept of separate powers.

Federal Criminal Court, Separation of Powers

The judicial branch of the U.S. legal system functions according to the doctrine of separation of powers. This codifies the three separate branches of government as legislative, judicial and executive. The judicial branch is charged with the interpretation of the law.

Corporate influence within the judicial branch in particular accelerated after the infamous Powell memo of 1971. Since that time, the composition of the federal judiciary has morphed according to the impact of corporate influence on the interpretation of federal laws. The appellate court system is part of the federal judiciary, so the influences on the first tend to impact the second. [2]

Federal Courts, Filing a Notice to Appeal

The federal courts only hear cases that affect federal agents, agencies or authorities given exclusively to the federal government. This includes issues like counterfeiting money, treason, drugs, weapons, disputes between states, interstate commerce and maritime law. Once the judicial branch reaches a decision on a case, there is an appeals court that enables the defendant to challenge the decision.

The process begins when the attorney files a notice to appeal within 10 days. The notice of appeal is filed by the court clerk. There is an exception called excusable neglect; this extends the window to file the notice of appeal to 30 days. The motion for a late appeal can be denied by the court; this denial can also be appealed.

After the notice of appeal is filed, the attorney must gather as much convincing evidence as possible to support the argument that will be made in the appellate brief. There are several parts involved in crafting a winning brief. This document is a written argument made by the lawyer on behalf of the client.

The argument details why the court made an error in its judgment; it attempts to convince the court to reverse the decision. This is the basis for overturning a conviction on the basis of a legal procedure that was violated or a right that was infringed during the court procedures. This brief must only refer to documents, statements and evidence that has already been presented in the case. No new evidence is allowed in the appellate brief.

Prosecutor’s Appellate Brief Response

The federal prosecutor responds to the appellate brief by filing an answering brief. This brief will typically argue the reason for the conviction and recommend that the decision be upheld. The law tends to favor the party that prevailed in court; in most cases, this is the federal prosecutor. The answering brief will also be restricted to the evidence, statements and documents that were already presented in the original court hearing.

Once the answering brief is filed by the federal prosecutor, a date for oral arguments is set. The appellate court judge will hear the oral arguments of both sides. The defendant is not present during this part of the process. However, many cases are decided on the merits of the written briefs; this is the reason so much emphasis is given to the written and persuasive narrative skills of appellate lawyers.

To appeal a case successfully, the written brief must convince the judge of the merits of the argument to the extent that a decision will override the federal prosecutor’s statements within the answering brief. The law gives the criminal defendant the right to appeal after a decision to convict.

If there is a plea bargain, the federal prosecutor might insist on the defendant waiving this right to appeal as a condition of acceptance. This process can be incredibly adversarial, so having an experienced criminal defense lawyer involved is absolutely necessary in order to have fair representation in the court system; this includes the appellate court’s process to appeal of the conviction. [3]





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