State Criminal Appeals Revealed

33 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2018 Last revised: 19 Feb 2018

See all articles by Michael Heise

Michael Heise

Cornell Law School

Nancy J. King

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Nicole A. Heise

University of Chicago, Law School, Students

Date Written: January 26, 2018


Every state provides appellate review of criminal judgments, yet little research examines which factors correlate with favorable outcomes for defendants who seek appellate relief. To address this scholarly gap, this paper exploits the Survey of Criminal Appeals in State Courts (2010) dataset, recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for State Courts (hereinafter, “NCSC Study”). The NCSC Study is the first and only publicly available national dataset on state criminal appeals and includes unprecedented information from every state court in the nation with jurisdiction to review criminal judgments. We focus on two subpools of state criminal appeals: a defendant’s first appeal of right, and defense appeals to courts of last resort with the discretion to grant or deny review. Error correction, of course, is paramount in the first context, for typically an appeal of right is a defendant’s only chance at review. By contrast, courts of last resort with discretionary jurisdiction emphasize law development, selecting cases to clarify or alter legal rules, resolve conflicts, and remedy the most egregious mistakes. Our findings imply that defense appellate success rates may have declined in recent decades. In appeals of right, defendants who challenge a sentence enjoy a greater likelihood of success, as do those who have legal representation, file a reply brief or secure oral argument, and appellants from Florida. In high courts of last resort, appeals from sex offenses, raising certain trial issues, and appellants represented by publicly funded attorneys appear to fare better than others. Also notable is the absence of a relationship between defense success and factors including most crime types and claims raised, the court’s workload, and, for all but one model, whether the appellate judges were selected by election.

Suggested Citation

Heise, Michael and King, Nancy J. and Heise, Nicole A., State Criminal Appeals Revealed (January 26, 2018). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 70, No. 6, 2017, Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-49, Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-44, Available at SSRN:

Michael Heise (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

308 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-0069 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Nancy J. King

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
(615) 343-9836 (Phone)
(615) 322-6631 (Fax)

Nicole A. Heise

University of Chicago, Law School, Students ( email )

Chicago, IL
United States

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