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The Criminal Appeal Process

The Pennsylvania criminal justice system provides two avenues of relief for challenging a conviction or sentence in a criminal proceeding. First, a defendant may file a direct appeal from the Court of Common Pleas to the next level of appellate court, which is the Pennsylvania Superior Court. This type of appeal is a request for review of the criminal case, by a new panel of appellate (higher-ranking) judges, based on alleged legal errors committed by the trial court, such as, incorrect rulings on the admission or exclusion of evidence; improper denial of pre-trial motions, such as motions to suppress or motions in limine; or improper instructions made to the jury. On direct appeal, a defendant might be acquitted entirely or the conviction could be overturned and the case remanded to the lower court for a fair trial. In this type of appeal, no new evidence may be introduced nor may the evidence be “re-weighed” or its credibility be reviewed or reconsidered.

Alternatively, a criminal defendant may seek relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The PCRA is a Pennsylvania law that allows a defendant to file a criminal appeal because of errors made that led to the conviction. This form of relief is available only to those who are currently serving a sentence or on probation or parole or awaiting execution for a crime. This type of appeal requires that the defendant prove that an error led to his conviction or sentence, such as one or more of the following:

  • Ineffective assistance of counsel: This contemplates that the performance of the defendant’s attorney was so inadequate or deficient that it undermined the truth-determining process such that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.
  • Obstruction by government officials of the petitioner’s right of appeal where a meritorious appealable issue existed
  • An unlawfully-induced guilty plea: This contemplates circumstances in which a defendant’s plea was unduly forced or coerced.
  • An imposition of an illegal sentence
  • Improper jurisdiction of the tribunal
  • Newly discovered evidence
  • Constitutional violations
  • Change of constitutional law

In contrast to a direct appeal to the Superior Court, a PCRA petition is usually heard by the same trial judge who presided over the case, which ostensibly appears to be an unfair process, but it does have some advantages. The judge reviewing the PCRA petition will already have familiarity and knowledge of the matter, which can make the review proceed more expeditiously. And where direct appeals are mainly based on errors of law, including the handling of evidentiary issues or jury instructions, PCRA petitions most often deal with the unfairness of the process due to the inadequate or deficient representation of the defendant in his criminal case.

Call the attorneys at Tanner Law Offices, to learn about how you may be affected by the PCRA and criminal appeals laws. Our attorneys are passionate about representing clients in their appeals and post-conviction relief matters. If you have any further questions regarding the PCRA or the criminal appeals process in general, call our Pennsylvania criminal conviction appeals attorneys at (717) 731-8114 today for a consultation.