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Four grounds for appeal based on harmful error

A previous blog post discussed the process of appealing a criminal conviction or sentence in Massachusetts. Harmless errors - or ones that do not affect the substantial rights of the defendant - will not justify reversal. To justify reversal, the error must have been a harmful error affecting the substantial rights of the defendant.

The four main grounds for appeal based on harmful error are that the lower court made a plain error, there is insufficient weight of evidence, there was an abuse of discretion and the defendant had ineffective assistance of counsel. To show that the court made a plain error, a defendant must show that there was an error affecting his or her substantial rights that was not brought to the judge's attention during trial. Miscalculated sentences and penalties are a common basis for appeals based on plain error.

Insufficient weight of evidence refers to situations in which a judge improperly allowed or disallowed evidence into a defendant's trial and, had it been properly allowed or disallowed, the defendant would have received a different verdict. DNA evidence is one way that this basis for appeal may be established.

Appellate courts may find that a judge in a lower court abused his or her discretion by making a clearly unreasonable, erroneous or arbitrary decision not supported by the facts or the law in the case. The federal guidelines help to prevent state biases from being unfairly imposed on defendants.

If a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to adequate representation and a fair trial has been violated, the decision may be appealed based on ineffective assistance of counsel. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that his or her lawyer's conduct undermined the functioning of the judicial process to the extent that the trial result cannot be relied upon as being just. Defendants seeking to appeal criminal sentences or convictions for felonies should seek the assistance of experienced counsel in deciding which grounds for appeal may apply to their case.

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