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The judicial system is hard to understand and navigate, especially when you are focused on the particulars of your criminal case. Understanding how court works can help you know how to handle your case.

One important thing to know is the difference between going to trial and filing an appeal. Trial and appellate courts take different approaches and thus require proper representation.


The purpose of trial court is to review the facts of a case and determine the interpretation of the law in regard to the case. A judge or jury evaluates evidence and listens to witnesses, expert testimonies and attorney arguments to decide whom to believe and how to apply the law. This scenario is often what you see on TV.


Filing an appeal is what you do after the trial is over if you have grounds to do so. The process does not entail examining old or new evidence but searching for legal mistakes that may have occurred during the trial process that would cause the verdict to be unjust. The judge reviews the written record and hears the arguments of the appellant’s (person who filed) attorney.

Examples of mistakes that can warrant an appeal include the following:

  • Law enforcement illegally obtained evidence, which should not have been admissible in court
  • Your trial lawyer was incompetent
  • Not enough evidence was present to support the verdict
  • The prosecutor broke the law, such as by withholding evidence beneficial to the defendant
  • Jurors did not follow instructions
  • The judge misinterpreted the law

Intermediate appellate courts review these cases, with the Court of Criminal Appeals handling matters of crime. As a last resort, it may be possible for the Tennessee Supreme Court to review and rule on the case. Federal cases go to federal appellate courts and sometimes up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Results can be a different verdict, a lesser sentence, a retrial or no change at all.