Most people think that “facts are facts” and “the law is the law,” and that leads to a lot of surprises when they suddenly find themselves enmeshed in a criminal trial.
It can also lead to some confusion when defendants lose their case and have to file an appeal. Here’s what you need to know:
The trier of facts and the trier of law are usually two different jobs
In reality, the jury is the trier of facts – so they decide what is actually a fact and what isn’t. They do that by examining evidence, listening to witnesses and entertaining the conclusions of experts. Then, they have to decide what actually happened in a situation and decide if a crime was committed.
The judge, however, is the person who is the trier of law – and only acts as the trier of facts when there’s a bench trial (and no jury).
This means judges often have to make complex rulings that take into account both black letter law (the law as it is written) and case law (laws that come from prior court rulings) and decide what can and cannot be admitted into court. They’re also responsible for making sure that court decorum is preserved, the defendant’s dignity and rights are protected, the rules of evidence are properly followed, that examinations of witnesses are done properly and more.
It’s this second job – and the court’s judgment – that is called into question o appeal. When a case goes to an appeal, it’s not a second trial or another “bite at the apple” for the defense. Instead, it’s a challenge to every questionable ruling the court made as the proceedings developed. A good defense often involves raising objections during a trial – if only to preserve the record so that it’s easier to appeal later.
If you’re moving onto the appellate stage of your criminal case, it’s wise to have very different expectations. Learning more about the next steps can help you move through the process much more easily.