Pennsylvania Appeals Attorney
The history of the American legal system is intertwined with the concept of a criminal appeal. As a means of fighting corruption, correcting blatant errors of law, and preventing convictions on the basis of bias, American criminal appeals courts play essential roles in ensuring that our justice system functions as it should. If you were found guilty or have pled guilty to a criminal offense in Pennsylvania, you have the right to file a direct appeal to a higher court. In other words, you can keep fighting. A conviction is not the end, and it was never intended to be.
Like the federal court system, the Pennsylvania court system is broken down into a system of tiers. If you are charged with a serious crime in the Commonwealth, a judge in one of the minor courts will determine whether your case should go to the Court of Common Pleas in the county where the crime allegedly took place. The Court of Common Pleas is Pennsylvania’s general trial court, but it also acts as a type of appellate court for decisions of Pennsylvania’s minor courts.
If you want to appeal a conviction from one of Pennsylvania’s minor courts, speak with an appeals attorney at the Zeiger Firm about the difference between this appellate process and the ones highlighted herein. If, however, you are convicted of a crime, whether by plea or verdict, before the Court of Common Pleas, your direct appellate court is the Superior Court, where a three-judge panel will review your conviction and sentence.
If you are unsuccessful after your direct appeal, you may petition for a discretionary appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the highest court in the Commonwealth. Generally, the Supreme Court has discretion in determining whether to review a direct appeal from the Superior Court, but the appeal may go as a right to the Supreme Court in certain cases, such as when the Court of Common Pleas issued a death sentence.
Direct Appeals and PCRA
Pennsylvania generally provides for two types of appeals: a direct appeal and a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Few criminal defense attorneys are prepared to take a case beyond the trial stage or have experience appealing a Pennsylvania criminal conviction.
A direct appeal is an appeal as of right, meaning that the Superior Court of Pennsylvania is required to hear and review your case provided you file it in a timely manner. The Superior Court, which hears Pennsylvania criminal appeals, is Pennsylvania’s intermediary court of appeals, and it will generally have the final say in criminal matters unless the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania accepts a petition for review. The state Supreme Court is not required to review an appeal as of right unless a capital sentence was issued. Accordingly, cast a leery eye toward claims that an attorney will take your case “all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”
Pennsylvania criminal appeals attorneys should most verse themselves in Superior Court procedure, as it more often than not has the final say in criminal matters.
Petitions under PCRA, however, are not appeals as of right. According to the chartering legislation, PCRA petitions are designed to provide a potential avenue of relief for people who are actually innocent, wrongfully convicted of their crimes, or are serving illegal sentences. Petitions under PCRA are now the sole means by which a convicted person may petition for collateral relief outside of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to the federal courts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. While nearly all criminal convictions in the Commonwealth qualify for a direct appeal, for PCRA eligibility the following conditions must exist:
- You were convicted of a Pennsylvania criminal offense
- You are currently serving your sentence or are on probation or parole for the same
- Your conviction resulted from a violation of constitutional law, ineffective assistance of counsel, a coerced plea, or obstruction of justice by a government official during the direct appeals process
- Exculpatory evidence was since revealed
- The sentence you received was greater than the lawful maximum, or the tribunal that convicted youdid not have the jurisdiction to do so
- You did not previously litigate or waive the specific allegation of error set forth in the PCRA petition
- The decision not to set forth or litigate the error so alleged was not a tactical or strategic one on the part of the litigating attorney
Even if a person so convicted meets the above-referenced standards, a petition under PCRA may still be denied if it is not filed in a timely manner.
Appellate procedure is complex, and if you do not hire an experienced Pennsylvania criminal appeals attorney immediately after your conviction you may unwittingly preclude your ability to file a PCRA petition. By raising and dismissing an issue on a direct appeal that may later form the crux of a PCRA petition, you may forfeit your right to relief.
The appeals attorneys at The Zeiger Firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, successfully handled both direct appeals and PCRA petitions for years, and they carefully ensure the former does not preclude the latter. In a direct appeal, our lawyers may appeal all of the issues from your pre-trial motions, trial, guilty plea, and sentencing with a specific focus on errors of law. Finding that the trial judge decided a motion on grounds contrary to controlling case law or made a clearly erroneous evidentiary ruling at trial is often a better strategy than challenging issues of judicial discretion, such as the reliability of witness testimony or the imposition of a harsh sentence but one within recommended guidelines. Appellate judges are not quick to overrule matters left to the discretion of the trial judge, and choosing the right appellate strategy for you based on experience and knowledge of Pennsylvania Superior Court procedure is an essential part of how The Zeiger Firm’s appeals attorneys will handle your case.
After a conviction or pleading guilty to a crime, many people want a fresh set of eyes to review their cases and determine whether the Pennsylvania Superior Court or Pennsylvania Supreme Court should reverse the conviction, order a new trial, or reduce the sentence imposed by the trial judge. If your criminal defense attorney lost your case at trial, then his appellate strategy may not differ from his losing trial strategy. He may attempt to rehash or reargue issues that the trial judge soundly decided or fell into the trial judge’s discretion.
An appeal is not akin to an opportunity to retry the action. It is a directed review of the trial transcript for clear errors or judicial abuses as highlighted and argued by your attorney. Unlike at a trial, the issue on appeal generally is whether the trial court made a legal error that affected the verdict or the sentence in your case. If the mistake was important, the Pennsylvania Superior Court or Pennsylvania Supreme Court could reverse your conviction or sentence or order a new trial. Or, if the judge made other errors, you could win a new sentencing hearing or get the sentence reduced. But fresh eyes can make all the difference—so hire an attorney who understands the law relating to appeals and the procedures that apply to these cases.
A fresh set of eyes may also determine whether you will raise issues of ineffective assistance of counsel either with the Superior Court on appeal or in your PCRA petition. As you can imagine, the attorney who represented you for your guilty plea or defended you at trial is not going to quickly acknowledge any errors so material to your conviction that they may raise the issue of malpractice.
Making a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel is difficult because the standard for ineffectiveness is extremely high. For example, there was a case in which the lead attorney was said to have slept through the majority of the trial, yet this did not rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel. Erroneous legal advice, however, may enable a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. For example, if your attorney did not explain to you the consequences of a plea bargain, such as deportation, this can constitute ineffective assistance. Often, laypeople will not recognize the signs of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. You may need to review your file with an appellate attorney familiar with ineffective assistance standards to determine whether your claim is valid and whether to pursue a direct appeal or through PCRA.
Generally, you are only permitted one direct appeal and one PCRA petition after your sentence. This is a fluid standard, however, because complex issues of law may send your case up and down the appellate chain for adjudication during the course of many years. However, if your direct appeal, your petition for review to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the PCRA are all denied, the case is effectively closed.
There is, however, another means about which you may be heard.
You may challenge your case on appeal by filing a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 with the United States federal courts. If you file a petition for habeas corpus in federal court, you essentially claim that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not afford you your minimally guaranteed federal constitutional rights. A pending petition for habeas corpus takes the case out of the hands of Pennsylvania and allows an independent review of the matter by a court that is not bound by Pennsylvania procedure. Federal court judges are appointed, not elected, by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to lifetime terms on the bench. These judges may review your case with unique sets of eyes. Similar to PCRA petitions, however, not everyone is eligible for a meritorious review of their § 2254 petitions.
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, known in judicial circles simply as “§ 2254,” a person in custody of the Commonwealth pursuant to a criminal conviction by the Commonwealth may generally only file a petition under § 2254 if imprisoned in violation of the United States Constitution, United States laws, or United States treaties. You cannot petition the federal court for relief on the grounds that you are being held in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution or Pennsylvania laws alone. Only an alleged violation of federal law, including the United States Constitution, would be eligible to merit review by a federal district judge. This is permissible because the United States Constitution and federal laws are the superior laws of the land in accordance with the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. This means that even if your conviction and sentence were found legal under Pennsylvania law, a federal court could override the Pennsylvania conviction.
If your Pennsylvania criminal appeals attorney believes you may have a valid claim for relief under federal law, you may be eligible to file a petition under § 2254 if the following are applicable:
- You have exhausted your remedies under state law—that is, you have already taken your direct appeal, petitioned for review with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and filed a petition under PCRA
- There was a general absence of state process—that is, you were jailed without a trial or the process failed to protect your rights. This standard is generally no longer used, but it was prevalent in years past when due process of law was denied to offenders on account of their race or the nation was at war.
The federal court may grant your petition for meritorious review in the following circumstances:
- The decision of the state court was clearly contrary to federal law—that is, you were jailed for burning the American flag under a fictitious or unconstitutional Pennsylvania statute, but federal case law clearly states that such actions are protected as free speech under the Constitution
- The decision of the state court was unreasonable in light of the facts and evidence presented in the proceeding—for example, a sham case with evidence that the police likely planted because you are in the process of suing the Commonwealth.
When it comes to habeas corpuspetitions, the burden of proving the facts is on you, unlike when you were prosecuted in state court. During federal petition procedures, determinations of fact by the state court are actually presumed correct. Your appellate attorney must rebut this presumption of truth with evidence to succeed in overturning an erroneous verdict. It is not enough to simply submit the petition and rely on the state to re-prove its case. The burden shifts once the conviction becomes final, and your attorney must present evidence sufficient to show that no reasonable fact finder—that is, the Pennsylvania trial judge or jury—would have found you guilty of the underlying offense. If you are unable to meet this standard, then the court will likely dismiss your petition without even an evidentiary hearing.
If, however, your present facts and legal arguments in your § 2254 petition sufficient to raise a question as to the legality of your conviction, whether because of the evidence with the petition or a recent United States Supreme Court decision that effectuated a change in law, the federal judge is supposed to grant you an evidentiary hearing.
At this hearing, you are entitled to representation by counsel, and because many petitioners do not use a Pennsylvania criminal appeal attorney when they make their initial petition, you may find yourself in need of a qualified Philadelphia appeals attorney. The Zeiger Firm has the experience you need to pick up your case at the evidentiary stage if you have already submitted your petition, but you’re even better off hiring a federal appeals attorney before submitting your § 2254 petition because you generally only have one chance to do so. If you fail to submit the necessary evidence with your initial petition and the court denies it, you may not submit a second petition containing the necessary evidence. In this case, you may have closed the door on your final appeal.
The standards are similar for federal prisoners, who must generally exhaust their appellate remedies through the Federal Court of Appeals and petition the United States Supreme Court for review before filing a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. As they are already federal prisoners, however, they do not have the added benefit of petitioning another court system, such as the Pennsylvania Superior Court, for relief.
A federal prisoner, however, may get a sentence reduced by more than 50 percent, even if the sentence would fall below federal sentencing minimums.
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) allows the government (or its prosecuting attorney) to ask the court to reduce your sentence by a certain percentage if, after sentencing, you provided the government with substantial assistance in either investigating or prosecuting another person. This can take the form of providing evidence about another crime, helping with an undercover prison investigation, or acting as a witness for the prosecution in another criminal matter. Typically, the court will hold a sealed hearing on the Rule 35(b) motion that allows both sides to argue their cases if the defendant wants a greater reduction than that proposed by the prosecution. A Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney can help expedite this process, especially in situations where the prosecution needs to be reminded of your assistance and the need to file a timely Rule 35(b) motion. You may be eligible for Rule 35(b) relief even years after your initial sentencing under the following circumstances:
- The information provided was not known to the defendant until after a year, meaning it may be something you learned in prison
- The information was provided within a year of sentencing, but the government did not use the information until after that time
- The offender had that information at the time of sentencing but could not have anticipated it would be useful until after one year and the information is promptly provided to the government
Essentially, these restrictions are meant to encourage offenders to provide the government with what information they have immediately and discourage them from attempting to receive a reduction at a later date for information they knew would have been useful but did not promptly provide.
Pardons in Pennsylvania
If you have exhausted each post-conviction remedy available to you either via the Commonwealth or federal law, your last option is to seek a pardon from the governor of Pennsylvania through the Board of Pardons. It is not necessarily a prerequisite that you exhaust all remedies before seeking a pardon, but the governor may deny you a hearing if you have not done so. An appeals attorney may assist you in seeking a pardon, reprieve, commutation of sentence, or executive clemency. The Governor, however, is only authorized to grant a pardon with a favorable recommendation by the Board of Clemency as a safeguard to ensure that pardons are not granted arbitrarily to those whom the Governor may favor. To seek executive relief, you must file an application with multiple agencies, including the Board of Probation and Parole. These agencies will investigate the facts of your case and prepare a report personalized to you. Your Pennsylvania clemency attorney can help you gather evidentiary support for your application in accordance with those factors generally considered by the Board of Pardons. This evidence should include:
- Information regarding your residence—that is, mortgage and rent, where you will live if release
- Information regarding your family status, including marriages, divorces, children
- Information regarding employment and income sources, including any alimony owed
- Your liabilities, including debt and child support arrears
- Information regarding your membership in any organizations—that is, church or a softball league
- Your travel, employment, and educational history
- Information regarding any military service and discharge
- Community and reputation references, including letters of support
A criminal appeals attorney can help you gather this information and present it in the best light to the Board of Pardons. Even if you are denied, you still have the opportunity to request reconsideration in certain circumstances or even reapply for clemency after a set amount of time has elapsed.
At The Zeiger Firm, we represent individuals seeking new counsel to their handle criminal appeals in Pennsylvania. Whether it is a direct appeal to a higher Pennsylvania court, a petition for review with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a petition for post-conviction relief, or a § 2254 petition to a federal court, our criminal defense attorneys are zealous advocates who have represented many persons in appeals from their convictions and sentences.
To learn more about all types of federal and state appellate issues click below for more information:
When you need a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to represent you in an appeal from a sentence or conviction in a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, contact The Zeiger Firm, where our goal is to represent every client zealously and to obtain the best results possible in each case. To arrange a consultation, please give us a call at (215) 546-0340 or send us an email via the form below.