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Tennessee Appeals Process

Trial

The local District Attorney prosecutes the case.  If it is a first-degree murder case that is death-eligible, the District Attorney decides whether to seek the death penalty.

The jury decides on guilt and, if the District Attorney is seeking a death sentence or a sentence of life without parole, the jury determines the sentence.  Otherwise, the trial court conducts a sentencing hearing and imposes the sentence. 

Direct Appeal

In a direct appeal, a defendant can raise questions about the validity of his or her conviction and/or sentence in a brief filed in the Court of Criminal Appeals.  An attorney from the Criminal Appeals Division of the Attorney General's Office then files a responsive brief on behalf of the State.  The court may also decide to hear oral arguments at this stage or at any stage of the case.  A three-judge panel of the Court of Criminal Appeals will issue an opinion after reviewing briefs, the trial court record, and any arguments. 

After a decision is issued by the Court of Criminal Appeals, either side may request permission to appeal the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Unlike the Court of Criminal Appeals, review of appeals in the Supreme Court is granted or denied at the discretion of the Court.  If the Supreme Court grants permission to appeal, attorneys for both sides will submit briefs to the court, and there may be an oral argument.  If permission to appeal is denied, the decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals is the final decision in the direct appeal.  The only exception to this discretionary review is in capital cases, where a defendant’s conviction and death sentence are automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court.  For capital cases in which the crime occurred on or after July 1, 2019, the conviction and sentence of death will be appealed directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court after the judgment becomes final, bypassing the Court of Criminal Appeals.  Defendants who are unsuccessful in the Court of Criminal Appeals or Tennessee Supreme Court may seek certiorari review in the United States Supreme Court. 

Post-Conviction Petition

A defendant who did not pursue a direct appeal has one year from the date that the judgment became final to file a petition for post-conviction relief in the trial court.  If a defendant pursued a direct appeal, the defendant has one year from the date of the final decision of the highest state appellate court that the defendant sought appellate review from to file a post-conviction petition.  A post-conviction petition is a request to overturn a conviction or sentence based on constitutional violations.  The local district attorney general handles post-conviction petitions in the trial courts.

If post-conviction relief is denied, a defendant may appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals.  Just as in a direct appeal, if the defendant loses in the Court of Criminal Appeals, he or she may seek permission to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Review is granted or denied at the discretion of the Supreme Court in both capital and non-capital cases.  Defendants who do not get relief from the Court of Criminal Appeals or the Tennessee Supreme Court may seek certiorari review in the United States Supreme Court. 

Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus

Upon completion of all available state appeals, a defendant may file a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court.  The primary function of the writ of habeas corpus is to petition for release from unlawful imprisonment.  A defendant is entitled to federal habeas corpus relief only by showing a violation of a federal constitutional right.

If federal habeas corpus relief is denied in the district court, a defendant may ask the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to grant an appeal.  If the district court decision is affirmed in the Court of Appeals, the defendant may petition the United States Supreme Court to review the case.  However, review by the United States Supreme Court is rarely granted.  In capital cases, once the habeas action is closed, the Attorney General’s Office shall file a motion asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to set an execution date. 

Clemency

In capital cases, an inmate will likely file an application seeking executive clemency.  Clemency is an act of the governor reducing a death sentence to life imprisonment or granting a full or conditional pardon.  The authority to grant or deny clemency rests solely with the governor.