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The Criminal Process Part 2

This month, Part 2 of our three-part series on the Criminal Process explores The Grand Jury, The Arraignment, and Pre-Trial Proceedings and Motions.

Images of Lady Justice, a gavel and law book representing the criminal defense processThe Grand Jury

Grand jury proceedings are held in private with the jury acting independent of the court.  During these proceedings, the grand jury is responsible for evaluating the evidence to determine if there is probable cause, meaning they feel there is sufficient reason to believe the suspect has committed a crime.

If the grand jury is not persuaded by the evidence, it will vote a “no bill” or “not a true bill,” meaning the charges will not proceed to a trial. If, on the other hand, the grand jury is convinced there is probable cause for the charges, then the jury will vote a “true bill” or “true bill of indictment.” In this instance, the grand jury issues an indictment, or a formal written statement of charges, and the case and the accused proceed to trial.

The grand jury system benefits both the prosecution and the defendant by giving the prosecution an opportunity to assess the strength of its case while ensuring the evidence against the defendant is adequate and he or she is not being charged without cause.

The Arraignment

After an indictment is handed down, the defendant goes to court for arraignment, signifying the beginning of the criminal trial process. It is at this point that a judge informs the defendant of the charges and their trial rights. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the court can appoint one at this time. This is also when the judge sets the next court date.

At arraignment, the defendant is asked to enter a plea – guilty or not guilty. When a defendant enters a plea of not guilty, the judge will decide whether the defendant’s pre-trial release conditions or pre-trial detention (incarceration) status will continue pending trial.

If a defendant enters a guilty plea, the judge sets a future date for sentencing.

Pre-Trial Proceedings and Motions

Even before a case goes to trial, several proceedings in-court take place. Other steps in the case include:

Discovery – The process in which both prosecution and defense supply and share evidence expected to be presented at trial.  During this phase, the prosecution and the defense plan their trial strategy by familiarizing themselves with the facts of the case, reviewing evidence, interviewing witnesses, and anticipating potential legal issues and/or strengths and weaknesses of a particular case. During this time, the prosecution must provide the defense with all the materials and evidence it plans to present at trial, including exculpatory evidence which could speak to the defendant’s innocence and, in turn, challenge the prosecutor’s case. Failure to present evidence can result in adverse consequences and inferences against the State, including potential sanctions, suppression of evidence, and/or a new trial under certain circumstances.

Plea Bargaining– The prosecutor may offer the defendant a plea offer under which a trial could be avoided and exposure to a longer sentence would be reduced. This would usually involve the defendant agreeing to plead guilty to a different criminal offense that exposes the defendant to a shorter sentence. The defendant must then admit his or her guilt in open court and prepare for a sentencing hearing at which time a judge would impose the sentence.

Status Conferences and Pre-Trial Proceedings:  During the pre-trial proceedings, which include mandatory case status conferences, motions can be raised for consideration by the court. Some more common motions include:

  • Motion to Dismiss charges based on insufficient evidence being presented, or the alleged facts not proving a crime was committed.
  • Motion to Suppress or preclude certain evidence or statements from being introduced to a jury at trial.
  • Motion for A Change of Venue when certain factors, such as pre-trial publicity, are said to jeopardize the defendant’s right to a trial by an impartial jury.

Pre-Trial Conference: the last formal court appearance before a trial is scheduled.  The parties appear before the court to address final legal and evidentiary issues, trial scheduling, and any necessary pre-trial hearings.

Next month, The Criminal Process Part 3 will explore The Trial, The Verdict, Sentencing, and The Appeal.

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