People are often confused as to the difference between an appeal of a criminal case and an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus.
An appeal (also known as a “direct appeal”) is taken immediately after a conviction and sentence. A person or their criminal appeals attorney is generally required to file a brief statement with the court called a “Notice of Appeal” within a short time after he or she is convicted. For example, with some limited exceptions, a Notice of Appeal must be filed within 10 days after a person is sentenced in a federal case and within 30 days after a person is sentenced in a state court case in Texas.
An appeal is limited to what is “in the record.” In other words, if an issue was not brought up through a pre-trial motion or at trial, it generally cannot be raised on direct appeal (of course there are some exceptions to this rule). Generally, in order to have the possibility of winning an appeal, three things must have happened:
- The trial judge must have committed an “error” (i.e. did something he/she should not have done or did not do something they should have done);
- The defense lawyer objected to the error at the time it was made; and
- The error was harmful (i.e. the error might have affected the conviction or sentence).
There are four possible outcomes from an appeal:
- The conviction and sentence can be affirmed;
- The defendant (called the “appellant” on appeal) can be given a new trial;
- The defendant can be given a new sentencing hearing; or
- The defendant’s conviction can be overturned and they cannot be retried.
In the federal appellate system, an appeal is taken to one of the twelve courts of appeals. For example, a person convicted in federal court in Texas, Mississippi or Louisiana takes an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that sits in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Appellant in the case submits a written brief, arguing the issues to be raised on appeal, to the Court of Appeals. The government is given an opportunity to respond with its own brief and then the Appellant can file a reply brief to the response. Often times, but not all the times, the criminal appeal lawyers will be called to New Orleans to argue the issues raised on appeal. Eventually the Court of Appeals will render its decision in the form of a written opinion. While the time can vary greatly, generally speaking, it takes about [highligh] 9-18 months from when a Notice of Appeal is filed to get a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.[/highlight] If either side is not happy with the result of the appeal, that party can file a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court asking the Supreme Court to consider the case. Unlike, the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court does not have to consider the case and, indeed, it considers less than one percent of the cases it is asked to hear.
In Texas, and in most other states, an appeal is taken to a state court of appeals. In Texas, there are fourteen courts of appeals (view them here). Like the federal system, an appeal is decided by a three judge panel of the particular court of appeals that hears the case. The party that lose a criminal appeal in a Texas court of appeals can then ask the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (essentially the Supreme Court in Texas for criminal cases) to consider its case by filing a Petition for Discretionary Review. Like the United States Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is not required to hear all the cases it is asked to hear. If the Court of Criminal Appeals refuses to hear the case or if it does hear the case and a party is not satisfied with the outcome, a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari can then be filed with the United States Supreme Court asking it to consider the case. Again, however, the Supreme Court considers less than one percent of the cases it is asked to hear
APPLICATION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS
An Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus can be brought if a person loses his direct appeal or if he or she elects not to pursue a direct appeal. Generally speaking, this procedure is used to raise issues that were not in the record and, therefore, issues that could not have been raised on direct appeal. In most states and in the federal system, the issues must be related to a denial of a constitutional right. An overwhelmingly large majority of applications for a Writ of Habeas Corpus allege that a persons’ trial lawyer and/or appellate lawyer were ineffective.
The “Motions & Briefs” page of our main website contains examples of some of the applications for a Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Broden & Mickelsen and some of the issues that can be raised in such applications.
There are strict time limits for filing an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (also called a 2255 motion) in federal court. The application must be filed within a year after a person’s conviction has become “final.” “Finality” of a conviction is a complicated topic, so please consult with a criminal lawyer to determine when a conviction became “final.” If the application is not filed within the one year time limit, it will be almost impossible to further contest a conviction in federal court.
Time limits, if any, to file an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in state courts vary from state to state. In Texas, for example, there is no time limit in non death-penalty cases for filing an application (also called an 11.07 writ). Nevertheless, if a person does not obtain relief after filing an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in a state court, they can raise the same issues in federal court despite the fact that they were originally convicted in a state court (this is called a 2254 motion). A 2254 motion must be brought within a year after a person’s conviction has become “final.” Again, “finality” of a conviction is complicated topic so a person should consult with a lawyer to determine when his conviction became “final.” Nevertheless, the time that a state writ is pending is not counted against the year time limit.
Generally speaking, a writ of habeas corpus is a person’s last shot at attacking their conviction. Nevertheless, there are many procedural traps and strict time limits involved with filing applications for such writs. Therefore, a person considering such a writ is well advised to speak to an experienced post-conviction lawyer to discuss the possibility of filing such an application.
Example of a Criminal Appeals vs. Habeas Corpus Case
Again, our firm has found that people are often confused as to the difference between an appeal and an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. It is hoped that an example might further help people understand the difference.
Suppose a person is charged with murder in Dallas, Texas and it is uncontested that the murder occurred in Dallas on August 20, 2008 at 1:00 pm. Further, suppose that the person charged with the murder can establish that he or she were with seven priests in Boston, Massachusetts on August 20, 2008 at 1:00 pm (Dallas time). They then give their trial lawyer the name and contact information of these priests.
If the lawyer tries to call these priests as witnesses at trial and the judge does not allow it, this issue could be raised on direct appeal. The reason it can be raised on direct appeal is that it will be in the trial transcript (i.e. it will be “in the record”) that the defense lawyer tried to call the priests as witnesses and the trial judge did not allow it. Therefore, a court of appeals can consider whether the trial judge was right or wrong in the ruling he made.
On the other hand, suppose the lawyer never contacts the priests and never mentions the priests during trial. Well, then, there is nothing “in the record” about the priests for a court of appeals to consider. Remember, a direct appeal, is limited to what is in the record and, generally, nothing outside the record can be raised on direct appeal. Nevertheless, a person could file an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus alleging that they were denied constitutional right to an effective assistance of trial, because their trial counsel did not contact the priests and call them as witnesses and that, as a result, they were convicted because the jury did not know the defendant had a solid alibi.
At Broden & Mickelsen, a good portion of our practice is dedicated to direct appeals and applications for writs of habeas corpus. For example, Clint Broden, alone, has handled over sixty appeals before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and has argued over thirty cases before that court. Nevertheless, we also try to be completely honest with our clients and the reality is that, after each step of the process, it becomes harder and harder for a defendant to win relief. Sadly, there are many times when a client could easily have won a case at a trial and comes to us after they have been convicted because they were not happy with their trial lawyer.
Simply put, it is important to have a good lawyer at trial so that an appeal or an application for writs of habeas corpus never becomes necessary. At Broden & Mickelsen, we handle federal trials throughout the country (having been involved in trial court cases in Texas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New Orleans, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and New Jersey) and state trials throughout Texas. We firmly believe that to be a good trial lawyer you must also be a good appellate lawyer and that to be a good appellate lawyer you should be a good trial lawyer. In the end, we are confident that our record at trial and the number of times we have heard a jury say “not guilty” speaks for itself.