Once defendants have been convicted, they have the right to appeal on certain grounds. In Massachusetts, a defendant may appeal in several circumstances including when new evidence was discovered that could affect the outcome of the case, evidence was improperly admitted, incorrect legal rulings or jury instructions were given or other legal errors were made that significantly impacted the outcome of the case. Generally, direct appeals are first made to the Appeals Court, after which they may proceed to the Supreme Judicial Court for further appellate review. However, in the case of a first-degree murder conviction, the case will proceed directly to the SJC.
When appealing a conviction or sentence, a defendant is asking a higher court to review the decision of the lower court and determine if there was legal error. An appellate court judge will generally defer to a trial court judge’s ruling, however there are certain types of errors that may cause an appellate court to overturn a guilty verdict or sentence.
In order for an error to justify reversal, it must not be a harmless error. A harmless error is one that does not affect the substantial rights of the defendant. Except for mistakes involving constitutional rights, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the guilty verdict. If the error did involve a constitutional right, such as the violation of due process, the conviction is subject to automatic reversal.
A reversal of a conviction or sentence can be especially important to defendants who were convicted or sentenced for felonies which typically carry serious penalties. The four main grounds for appeal based on harmful errors affecting the substantial rights of the defendant are that the lower court made a plain error, there is insufficient weight of evidence, there was an abuse of discretion and that the defendant had ineffective assistance of counsel. These four grounds for appeal will be discussed in a future post.