Prosecuting a Case
An Overview of the Criminal Justice System
There are many steps in the legal process. Here is a brief overview:
Investigation and Arrest: Once the Police or other investigation officers gather enough evidence, they present the case to the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides what charges should be filed. A warrant is then issued for the suspects if he/she is not already in custody.
Initial Arraignment: Within 24 hours of being arrested, the defendant must be charged with the crime. He then appears before a judge to be arraigned. Here, the judge informs the defendant of the charges, and sets bond. The judge also sets a date for the preliminary hearing. The Prosecutor's Office will notify you about the date.
After it is determined if there is enough evidence for the State to pursue charges, the next step in the criminal justice process is the preliminary hearing or Grand Jury.
Preliminary Hearing: The Prosecutor's office presents evidence to show the judge that there is probable cause, or reason to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime. The judge determines if there is enough evidence to bind the case over to Circuit Court. Sometimes a defendant will give up his/her right to a hearing. If this occurs, the case is automatically bound over for trial in the Circuit Court. A defendant can enter a plea of guilty at the preliminary hearing if desired. The Associate Circuit Court also has the authority to sentence persons found guilty of misdemeanors to jail and/or a fine. The judge has authority to grant probation to a defendant that he believes might be rehabilitated by supervision.
Grand Jury: A case may be presented to a Grand Jury instead of a preliminary hearing. At this proceeding, the prosecutor presents evidence to a Grand Jury who decides whether or not a crime was committed and if the defendant could have committed it. Just as in a preliminary hearing, either the case is bound over to the Circuit Court with signing a "true bill" or the defendant is set free. Grand Jury proceedings are closed to the public and the victim is notified of the outcome. Defendants are not present during these proceedings unless testifying as a witness.
Circuit Court Arraignments: The next proceeding after the case is bound over, either at a preliminary hearing or in a Grand Jury setting, is the Circuit Court arraignment. The charges are read and the defendant may enter a plea of "not guilty." At this time, the judge can raise or lower the defendant's bond. The judge also assigns the case to a trial division. Arraignments are open to the public. After the arraignment, an assistant prosecutor is assigned to the case.
Setting a Court Date: Once the case is assigned to a judge, it must work its way up to the top of the judge's docket, before it can be heard. The Prosecutor's Office does not set court dates, the judge schedules them.
Compiling the Case: As the court date approaches, the Assistant Prosecuting Attorney will begin working more steadily on preparing the case, gathering testimony from witnesses, ordering lab work, or requesting further investigation.
Continuances: Continuances, or delays in court dates, are extremely frustrating for crime victims. Sometimes they are necessary to ensure a fair trial. Such delays may be caused by a lack of evidence, attorneys' conflicting schedules or problems scheduling witnesses. Nearly every case is continued several times before it actually goes to trial.
Mental Defense: Sometimes the defense attorney will request a mental exam be ordered for the defendant. The results might not come back for several months, so the case is delayed. The defendant may be found mentally incompetent to stand trial or "not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect." Victim Advocates from our office can explain what the outcome means and what may happen in there situation.
Understanding The Trial, Verdict & Sentencing In The Case
After months of careful preparation, the case will finally come to trial. Here is a quick overview of the events that take place in a criminal trial.
Jury Selection: The day the trial is scheduled, the prosecuting and defending attorneys must first select twelve jurors who will hear the evidence and arise at a verdict. Jury selection usually begins on a Monday.
Opening Statements and Presenting Evidence: The prosecuting and defending attorneys begin by summarizing the case they will be presenting during the trial. Next, the State will present its evidence to prove the defendant's guilt. Then, the defense has the option to present evidence. Conferences on legal motions may cause interruptions throughout the trial.
Witnesses: As part of the attorney's case, they will call witnesses to testify for or against the defendant. If you are needed as a witness in the case, the prosecutor will notify you.
Closing Arguments: Just as in the opening statements, the prosecuting and defense attorney will summarize the evidence they have presented and ask the jury to find for or against the defendant.
Jury Deliberation: After they have heard the evidence, the jurors adjourn to deliberate, or discuss, the case. It is the jury's responsibility to unanimously agree on whether the defendant is guilty or not. Even though the jurors can deliberate for several hours, you can wait for their verdict. If they begin deliberating late in the day; the judge might dismiss them until the next morning.
If even one juror cannot agree with the rest, the result is a "hung jury" with no verdict. The case might then be tried all over again at a later date.
Appeals: If the defendant id found guilty, he/she may later request an appeal, where his/her case will be heard by another judge in a higher court. Appeals are routine in most murder cases, but usually the guilty verdict is upheld. You may contact Victim Services for more information.
Prison or Probation: After the defendant's guilt has been determined, the judge will pass sentence that includes time in prison and/ or a fine. The judge may also sentence the defendant to probation, where the defendant is released under a number of restrictions, to be monitored by a probation officer.
Parole: A defendant sentenced to prison will likely be eligible for parole, or early release, before the sentence is completed. This is a policy of the State Parole Board, which sets its own guidelines for when prisoners should be considered for release. The Parole Board will hear the prisoner's case, then recommend either release or continued prison time.