Guilty pleas are intended to be final. Before a federal district judge will accept a guilty plea, he must inform the defendant he or she is waiving their right to a jury trial, to confront and cross-examine their accusers, and the privilege against self-incrimination. The judge must also determine that there is a factual basis for the plea and to advise the defendant that by pleading he or she waive their right to appeal.
Jason Muskey learned these facts the hard way. He was a trusted financial adviser until the Secret Service conducted an investigation into his business, Muskey Financial Services. That investigation developed sufficient evidence that Muskey embezzled more than $2 million from clients during a seven-year period to obtain an indictment for wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and mail fraud.
Like most federal defendants, Muzkey entered into a plea agreement with the government in exchange for certain conditions. A federal district judge accepted the plea in February 2016. He sentenced Muskey to an 11-year term of imprisonment.
This past October Muskey filed a motion to have the sentence set aside on the grounds that his attorney had not adequately represented him. He specifically alleged that his attorney failed to challenge a number of issues upon which the sentence was based.
In December U.S. District Court Judge Malachy Mannion denied the motion, pointing out in his ruling that the evidence against Muskey was clear cut and that his attorney had taken appropriate steps to mitigate punishment exposure.
The right to a federal appeal is a rigid and sometimes complex process.
First, Muskey did not have a right to appeal. He waived that right through his guilty plea. At best, he could have filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion—a habeas corpus hybrid—to vacate his guilty plea or set aside the 11-year sentence.
Second, the mere dissatisfaction of the outcome of a sentence imposed pursuant to a guilty plea is not a sufficient basis, standing alone, to have either the plea set aside or the sentence imposed vacated.
When Should You File a Federal Criminal Appeal?
There are several situations in which it may be appropriate to file an appeal in federal court. Even these, though, can go either way, so it is important to have a knowledgeable federal appeals lawyer go over the legal proceedings to determine whether your appeal is worth pursuing.
Specific errors made by legal counsel.
Muskey tried to get an appeal because he believed that his lawyer didn’t do a good job. This may or may not have been true, but it does not have merit in an appeals court. For an argument against legal counsel to have merit, it needs to point to specific errors that were made.
For example, if Muskey’s attorney had failed to submit specific, unrefuted evidence that may have resulted in a lesser sentence, then the appeal may have had merit.
Other trial errors may include:
Admission of unlawfully gathered evidence
Improper arguments made by prosecution
Unlawful instruction of the jury
Failure to meet deadlines
Other errors. Mistakes can be made by anyone in the courtroom. If the lawyers, jury, or judge in the court makes a critical or unlawful error during a trial that affected a ruling or sentencing, an appeal has merit.
Sometimes these errors can slip by without anyone noticing or objecting in the proper time frame. Say, for example, a judge made an innocent mistake by basing your sentence off of old sentencing guidelines or miscalculating your sentence. While this may not affect a “guilty” or “not guilty” ruling, pointing out this “plain error} to an appeals court may result in a new stence.
Weight or presence of evidence. The rules behind the use of DNA evidence are not set in stone. If new technologies in DNA testing become available while you are serving your sentence, or the laws change regarding the access to DNA testing and evidence, you may be able to submit new evidence in an appeals court.
However, this is not always easy or allowed, and you should consult a federal criminal appeals lawyer before using this as the basis for your appeal.
Abuse of judge’s discretion. – We have all seen those scenes on television law shows when a lawyer yells, “Objection, Your Honor!” and the judge’s response can either make or break the other lawyer’s ability to move forward with their argument.
During these moments, and throughout the entire trial, the judge is given discretion as to what can and cannot be admitted in court. However, a judge may abuse this discretion, and the abuse may affect your defense lawyer’s ability to perform his or her job, or may let the prosecution make an unlawful argument against you that affects your case.
When these situations occur, a separate judge in the appeals court can look over the proceedings of the trial and decide whether the judge’s discretion was used properly or constitutes abuse.
This was briefly touched on above, but in general the basis for a criminal appeal should not be based in the facts of your case, but in the legal proceedings. If you have questions about the legality of what happened during your trial, reach out to a federal criminal appeals lawyer today. They can walk you through what parts of your trial may have been performed illegally, and what could afford to be looked at by an appeals court.