On Appeal, It’s About Process
A criminal trial aims to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence through facts and the law. Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the direct appeals process in Oklahoma is that after a criminal conviction, your arguments must change from attacking the reliability of the facts, establishing reasonable doubt, and proving affirmative defenses to focusing on the process that led to your conviction.
If you or a loved one sat through a trial, you undoubtedly heard the words “presumption” and “burden” used to explain that the defendant enjoys a presumption of innocence. The State carries the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Once a case moves from the district court to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA), these presumptions and burdens shift.
On direct appeal, the presumption is that the judge and jury made the proper decisions at the trial level. OCCA is concerned with deferring to those decisions and primarily confining themselves to correcting only serious legal errors made by the trial court and settling any questions of law. On appeal, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that some part of the trial process was defective to the extent that OCCA should overturn their conviction. To meet this standard, the defendant must convince the Appeals Court that the error at the trial level was so great that it “likely affected the outcome of the trial.” This is not a small burden.
What Does the Appellate Court Look For?
At the trial stage in Oklahoma, it is usually the judge’s job to determine the law and a jury’s job to determine the facts (a judge would take on both responsibilities in a bench trial, of course). Depending on the particular issue(s) brought to their attention, OCCA will use varying presumptions and burdens to examine the issue — courts refer to these as “standards of review.” Knowing and understanding the shifting burdens and how to construct an appellate argument to receive the most beneficial standard of review from the OCCA is paramount. An example of some of the varying standards the Appeal’s Court uses for particular issues:
- “De novo” review is the most beneficial standard of review for a defendant, as it means that the Appeal’s Court will give no deference to the trial court’s decision — as if the court is looking at the issue for the very first time. The Appeal’s Court typically only uses this standard to consider “purely legal questions,” such as whether the State violated the defendant’s Constitutional rights.
- The “no reasonable jury” standard is the standard the OCCA implements when asked to substitute the jury’s determination of fact with its own. The court will only do so if it determines that no reasonable jury could have made the determination the jury made.
- The OCCA typically uses an “abuse of discretion” standard when reviewing a trial court’s discretionary decisions. The OCCA shows significant deference to discretionary decisions. Discretionary decisions include whether to allow a particular type of testimony, what jury instructions to use, rulings on objections, etc. To meet this standard, the defendant must show that the trial court’s decision was “unreasonable or arbitrary . . . or without proper consideration of the relevant facts and law.” A defendant has a much greater chance of being successful under this standard if it can show that the trial court committed a legal error while making their decision.
- The OCCA also gives considerable deference to factual findings made by the trial court, implementing a “clearly erroneous” standard of review. Under this standard, the defendant must show that “after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution [no] rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt.”
- When considering an appeal for a sentence imposed by the trial court, the OCCA will use a “shock the conscience” standard. A defendant must prove the sentence was “manifestly and grossly unjust.”
Suppose a defendant can meet the demanding standards used by the OCCA. In that case, it must still show that the judge or jury’s error at the trial court was more than simply a “harmless error.” As mentioned above, it is not enough that a defendant convinces the court that the State or trial court committed an error; they must also convince the court that the error was “likely to affect the outcome of the trial.” To meet this demanding showing, a defendant must prove that the protested error “worked to his actual and substantial disadvantage” and, but for that error, the outcome of the trial would have “likely” been different. Simply put, the Appeal’s Court could agree that an error occurred but determine the error was harmless as to the eventual outcome of the case.
Oklahoma Direct-Appeal Attorney
The timeline and procedures to file a direct appeal in Oklahoma are precise and demanding. On top of that, the legal arguments at this stage can become increasingly more complex and narrow. The sad fact is that after an Oklahoma court convicts you of a crime, the deck is stacked against you. If you believe that you or a loved one should not have been convicted of a crime and that the Court of State made mistakes made during the trial process, it is crucial that you speak to an Oklahoma City direct-appeal attorney as soon as possible. It is essential to ensure your appeal is done correctly and that you adhere to all critical deadlines. An Oklahoma City direct-appeal attorney with Wirth Law Office can be the advocate you need to negotiate this trying process.
For a free consultation with an Oklahoma City direct-appeal attorney, call Wirth Law Office – Oklahoma City at 405-888-5400. You can also submit an email question from the top right corner of this page. We will respond to all inquiries as soon as possible.