Jury Instruction Errors & When to Appeal
Posted on Friday, October 25th, 2019 at 10:51 am
Jury deliberations are meant to be private, but if the jurors are given improper instructions, they won’t be able to reach a fair verdict. If the judge tells the jury the wrong legal standards to apply or to consider inappropriate evidence, they may find someone guilty when they should have reached the opposite conclusion. As a result, jury instruction errors are a common reason for appealing criminal convictions.
A criminal conviction is not necessarily final. You can appeal a conviction, but the clock starts ticking as soon as your sentence is issued. In most cases, you have only 30 to 60 days to file an appeal, but as we’ll discuss, there are some exceptions. If you or a loved one has recently been convicted of a crime, an appeal may be the only way to avoid devastating criminal penalties.
Bad Jury Instructions Can Ruin Your Chance at a Fair Trial
When a jury decides criminal cases, the judge’s role is essentially to control what happens in the courtroom. This means ensuring that the jury understands the legal standards, hears only admissible evidence, and prevent improper arguments from the prosecution or defense. When a judge fails in this role, you may file an appeal if you can show that the judge’s failures negatively affected the outcome of your case.
The most common reasons for appealing a criminal conviction are
- improper introduction of evidence or testimony,
- insufficient evidence to support a conviction,
- and improper jury instructions.
The judge issues their jury instructions at the end of a trial, once the prosecution and defense have presented all of their evidence and arguments. The judge instructs the jury about the factual elements of each offense, what evidence they should consider for each issue, and how much evidence is needed to prove the elements.
If the jury receives improper instructions, it’s likely they will not reach the correct verdict. In this case, you can and should appeal. If you get convicted of a felony, you have 60 days to appeal. If the conviction was for a misdemeanor, you have only 30 days. But if you miss these deadlines, you may still be able to appeal if you can show that the trial attorney failed to perform their duties relating to the appeal, or that you constructively filed your appeal within the time limits.
California Makes Some Exceptions to the Appeal Deadline
California Penal Code section 1240.1 requires your defense lawyer to give you “advice as to whether arguably meritorious grounds exist for reversal or modification of the judgment on appeal.” This means that if your lawyer failed to tell you about the possibility of an appeal, you may still be able to file after the deadline. What‘s important is that you file as soon as possible after learning about your right to appeal.
Similarly, if you ask your lawyer to file an appeal, and they fail to do so in time, your right to file an appeal is generally preserved. Finally, in felony cases and contested probation revocation hearings, the judge is required by Rule 4.470 of the California Rules of Court to notify the defendant of the possibility of filing an appeal. The bottom line is that if you were never informed of your right to appeal, an appeals court will probably let you file late.
Another way to file an appeal after the deadline is to show a constructive filing. This usually happens if you try to file an appeal from prison by mail, and your appeal doesn’t make it to the court on time. But as long as you can show that you asked the jail or prison to mail your notice of appeal before the deadline, the court will consider that you constructively filed on time–even if your notice arrives late.
You may also benefit from the doctrine of constructive filing if you are representing yourself. The court will generally be more lenient in such cases. For example, if you send a notice of appeal on time, but to the wrong court, you may get extra time to send it to the correct court. Also, if a court officer or administrator gives you misleading information about your right to appeal and how to file, the court will take this into account and could grant you an extension.
If You Miss the Deadline, There May Be Appeal Alternatives
The appeals process is not the only way to overturn a criminal conviction. If you miss the appeals deadline, you can look into filing a writ of habeas corpus, which is a formal challenge to illegal detention. If successful, this legal action will have a similar effect to an appeal. But the difference is that there is a different and vague time limit on filing, and you can present new evidence when prosecuting your writ of habeas corpus.
Contact Spolin Law P.C.
Remember that your fight is not over when the judge hands down your sentence. At Spolin Law P.C., we will review the trial judge’s jury instructions for errors and be by your side at every step of the appeals process. Alternatively, if new evidence comes to light regarding your case, we may be able to file a habeas corpus writ on your behalf.
Call Spolin Law, P.C. today at (310) 424-5816 for more information about your options for overturning a California criminal conviction.