Why Winning an Appeal is Challenging in Indiana and How to Overcome It

Appealing a custody decision in Indiana can be a challenge. Appeals, in general, can present a number of challenges, particularly in family law and criminal cases. The standard of proof set by the appellate court when reviewing issues on appeal is a difficult one to meet. This blog explores why winning on appeal in Indiana is challenging and how to overcome some of those challenges. 

Challenges In Reversing A Custody Decision

The appellate court defers to the trial judge in family law cases and will only reverse a decision if it finds that decision to be clearly erroneous (Reed v. Reed, No. 22A-DR-2940 (Ind. App. July 26, 2023)). A decision is clearly erroneous if there are no facts to support the findings, the findings do not support the conclusion, or the court applied the wrong legal standard to the facts (Strawbridge v. Strawbridge, No. 22A-DR-3014 (Ind. App. July 10, 2023)). The court has specifically stated that in this instance, there must be NO facts, not very few facts, or less facts than those that may support a different conclusion in order for it to reverse the trial court. Even when the facts might lead one to a conclusion which differs from that of the trial court, the appellate court will not disturb the trial judge’s decision based on this alone. This is because the trial judge is in the best position to assess witness credibility and to properly evaluate and weight the evidence (Myma v. Wroe, No. 22A-DR-1940 (Ind. App. Feb. 20, 2023)). This can create a real challenge in winning a family law appeal based on facts and evidence and not the misapplication or misinterpretation of the law. Because the appellate court does not conduct a trial or allow any evidence to be submitted that was not previously admitted in the trial court, factual arguments can be difficult to make and even more difficult to win. This is not to say that winning an appeal when the facts are in dispute is impossible, however as a good appellate attorney can rework an issue to state it as one that is a matter of both law and fact, and not just fact. 

Circumstances Of Appeal

Matters of law upon which an appeal can be taken include an unfair trial or an error made by the trial court in the application or choice of law. Determining if a law was misapplied often requires statutory interpretation, for which there are well-established rules. First, the court will give the words of the statute their plain English meaning, unless a contrary definition is contained in the statue. Second, the statute is interpreted as a whole, with attention to both what the statute says and what it does not say. Finally, if there is any ambiguity in the statue, the court attempts to determine the intent of the legislature when enacting it (City of Lawrence Utils. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581 (Ind. 2017)). An experienced appellate attorney can anticipate some of the issues that may arise when the court of appeals interprets a statute and address them in the brief before the court begins its interpretation. Thereby discouraging the court from going down a different path of logic. 

Claiming An Unfair Trial In An Appeal

When appealing a decision based on a claim of an unfair trial, the defendant must prove that the trial court committed an error that violated the defendant's constitutional rights, AND that the error was fundamental as it “had such an undeniable and substantial effect on the jury's decision that a fair trial was impossible.” (Lockridge v. State, No. 22A-CR-1381 (Ind. App. Jan. 20, 2023). The issue(s) in most of these appeals is whether the trial judge gave improper jury instructions, admitted evidence that should not have been allowed, failed to allow evidence that should have been admitted, or permitted comments from the state or state’s witnesses that should have been excluded. It is difficult however to determine, let alone PROVE that absent the error, the jury would have reached a different verdict. Experienced appellate attorneys have reviewed many court opinions however and are familiar with what types of error it has found to be fundamental and what types it considers harmless. This knowledge can greatly improve the chances of winning an appeal, as it provides an appellate attorney with information on how to frame and argue the issue so that the court will be persuaded to agree with the conclusion reached. 

Appeal Due To Deficient Counsel

A defendant may also bring an appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Winning on these grounds require a showing that defense counsel's performance was deficient AND that the deficient representation prejudiced the party’s defense (Montgomery v. State, 804 N.E.2d 1217 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004)). In order for an attorney’s performance to be “deficient” the representation must fall below an objective standard of reasonableness (Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). To establish prejudice, the defendant “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” (Cook v. State, 675 N.E.2d 687, 692 (Ind. 1996)). While this may sound reasonable, the application of these standards has turned out to be not so logical in some circuits hearing “sleeping lawyer” cases. Ater his conviction of assault with intent to commit murder, among other charges, Muniz appealed the convictions citing ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney slept through the state’s cross examination of him. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision and the Michigan Supreme Court declined a review of the case. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan found on Muniz’s request for habeas relief, that because his attorney did not sleep for a ‘substantial’ portion of the trial, Muniz’s defense was not prejudiced. It therefore denied his claim for relief and affirmed the lower court’s decision. Other circuits have found that the length of counsel’s unconsciousness does not matter, it is at what part in the proceedings counsel was not conscious (Kimberly Sachs, You Snooze, You Lose, and Your Client Gets a Retrial: United States v. Ragin and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel in Sleeping Lawyer Cases, 62 Vill. L. Rev. 427 (2017). Indiana has yet to hear a sleeping attorney case, we can only wonder what standard it will adopt if a tired attorney is caught catching up on sleep in the courtroom. 

If you are considering filing an appeal, or have already begun the process, the experienced attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. can help. This blog was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. It is for general educational purposes. The blog is not intended to be relied upon for any legal matter or issue. The blog is not legal advice. This is an advertisement.


Quick Contact

Need to talk now? Fill out the quick form below and we will contact you directly.

What Our Clients Say About Us

Contact Us