After a conviction for a crime in federal court, the defendant has a right to an appeal. In the federal system, the first appeal normally is addressed to the circuit court for the region in which the defendant is tried. For example, in California and eight other western states, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the proper court.
An appeal is completely different than a trial. A court of appeals reviews the trial record in order to determine whether there was some error that deprived the defendant of a fair trial. A court of appeals is usually comprised of three circuit court judges. Each judge reviews the record independently. Ultimately, two out of three judges must agree on the result. In some instances, depending upon the legal issues presented, one of the parties to an appeal may ask the circuit court to hear the case en banc. That is, the appeal, usually after an opinion by the panel of three judges, is then heard by the full circuit court
After all procedures in the circuit court are completed, the losing party may ask the United States Supreme Court to hear the case. Whether the Supreme Court will hear the case is up to the members of that Court. The request to hear the case is made by means of a document entitled “writ of certiorari.” If the court grants the writ of certiorari, then the parties must present their arguments (briefs) to the Supreme Court. If the Court denies the writ, the case usually ends and the judgment is final.
There are other legal procedures that a defendant may employ even after the judgment on appeal is final. These proceedings are not confined to the record at trial. Thus, if a defendant believes that he or she was deprived of a substantial right at trial, but that issue is not shown on the record, the court of appeals will normally not hear it. The defendant is not without a remedy, however. He or she may bring a proceeding under Title 28, United States Code, Section 2255, to essentially reopen the case to present other evidence, not previously presented at trial.
The same applies to state court convictions that present issues of federal law. The federal courts are empowered under Title 18, United States Code, Section 2254, to hear and sometimes reverse a state court conviction if the defendant was deprived of a federal right.
There are other remedies under other statutes as well, but this area of the law is far too complex to treat here.
Once again, a lawyer who is well versed in these various legal procedures can mean the difference between serving out an entire sentence and obtaining freedom.