Georgia Criminal Appeals
Criminal trials involve the presentation of evidence to a single judge or a jury. The judge or jury is charged with deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused based on that evidence. The trial court judge will also determine what sentence the defendant will receive if a guilty verdict is reached. In Georgia, felonies are generally handled in superior courts while misdemeanors are handled in state courts, although there are some counties that do not have a separate state court.
During the trial process, there are numerous errors that may be made by either the judge or the prosecutor. If the defendant is unhappy with the outcome of a trial or sentencing, he may wish to appeal one or more possible errors. Errors may include evidence that was improperly admitted or denied, illegal sentencing, improper jury selection, ineffective assistance of counsel, the failure to suppress evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and a lack of evidence sufficient to convict.
A defendant alleging that an error occurred at trial is generally entitled to a direct appeal. That appeal is usually made to the Court of Appeals of Georgia. On appeal, attorneys must submit written briefs explaining why the trial court did or did not make an error. The court may also hear oral arguments from attorneys on each side. Appeals are almost always heard by three justices (known as a panel) randomly assigned to the case. Occasionally, all justices will hear a case, which is known as an en banc hearing.
In some cases, a defendant may also appeal directly to the Supreme Court of Georgia. The Supreme Court of Georgia is the highest state court in Georgia, and its decisions bind all other state courts. The Court is comprised of seven justices. Each case accepted by the Court is generally heard by all of the justices. Attorneys submit written briefs to the Court, and the Court may also ask to hear oral arguments. It is important to note that review by the Supreme Court of Georgia is not a right in most cases, and that the Court normally only takes cases that it feels are important to society or concern a legal issue of great significance. The appeals process to the Supreme Court may be by direct appeal (from a capital crime conviction such as murder), or by a petition for a writ of certiorari, which is also called “cert” petition.
On appeal, the defendant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence, and the appellate court views any evidence in favor of the verdict. An appellate court generally may only consider evidence that was available to the trial court. It is also important to note that an appellate court will generally only consider issues that were objected to and raised at trial. Occasionally, an appellate court will deviate from this rule and consider issues not addressed at trial that are obvious or affect the integrity of the court system.
An appellate court tends to give trial courts a large amount of discretion when it rules on facts and evidence. An appellate court will independently review a trial court’s application of law when none of the facts are in dispute. For a defendant claiming an error to win on appeal, he must be able to show that there was in fact an error and that the error injured him. If there is an error but the court finds the error to be harmless, it will generally not alter the trial court’s ruling.
In addition to all cases certified to the Supreme Court by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court retains appellate jurisdiction over several other types of cases. First, the Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction in all cases involving the construction of the Constitution of the United States and the State of Georgia. The Court also has appellate jurisdiction over all habeas corpus cases and all cases in which a sentence of death was imposed or could be imposed. The Supreme Court also has authority to answer any question of law from any state or federal appellate court, or federal district court.
When reviewing death penalty cases, the Supreme Court may uphold the death sentence, set it aside, or remand the case for resentencing by the trial judge. Counsel is required to submit written briefs to the Court, and the Court is also required to hear oral arguments from counsel. One factor the Court looks at is whether the sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion or prejudice. The Court will also ensure that there was some aggravating circumstance aside from the murder itself. Furthermore, the Court will decide whether the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases after considering both the crime and the defendant.
In addition to the appeals discussed above, a defendant may wish to file an interlocutory appeal. Interlocutory appeals are appeals made before the conclusion of a trial. In such cases, a defendant must seek a certificate of immediate review from the trial judge. The appellate court must also agree to hear such an appeal. Interlocutory appeals may be granted when the issue is dispositive to the case, a trial judge’s order appears to be erroneous and will probably cause substantial error at trial, or setting a precedent for the issue is desirable. Other types of appeals may be available to a defendant as well.
This rough sketch does not begin to describe the intricacy of the appeals process in Georgia. A defendant may have additional options in appealing a case depending on the specific facts. Because the appeals process is complex—and is often the last opportunity for justice—you should retain an experienced appeals attorney if you are challenging a wrongful conviction or sentence. Our firm has had decades of success in Georgia criminal appeals.
The information provided above is a very general summary of the Georgia appellate process at the time this text was prepared. Because this analysis is subject to change depending upon recent cases and legal developments, you should not rely on this summary as legal advice. As with any important legal question, you should always consult a criminal defense lawyer licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Our lawyers are licensed to practice in all state and federal courts in Georgia.