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Defending The Wrongfully Accused: An Overview

How It Begins

The filing of the criminal complaint, or information, is the prosecutor’s way of apprising the defendant of what specific crime(s) he/she is charged with.  The police arrest, but it is the prosecuting attorney who will examine the evidence and decide what charges, if any, will be alleged.  
 
Arraignment

The arraignment is the first court appearance. The judge will advise the defendant of what he/she is charged and will ask the defendant, with or through an attorney to enter a plea to the charges. A person accused of a crime can plead not guilty, guilty, or no contest (nolo contendere). Once a plea is entered, the judge will set the next court appearance.  
 
Evidence

The prosecution must provide the defense with any evidence they intend to use, prior to the trial.  The prosecutor cannot conceal evidence, and then take the defense by surprise at trial.

The evidence, or discovery includes, but is not limited to, any law enforcement reports, crime scene photos and diagrams, victim photos, medical records, statements made by witnesses, as well as any statements made by the defendant.

Investigation

Often, the issuance of subpoenas becomes necessary to obtain additional evidence that is not provided voluntarily.  These documents could include security officers’ reports, surveillance videotapes, 911 tapes, and any other evidence that helps defend the wrongfully accused.

Pre-Trial Hearings

After the initial arraignment the judge may set a court date prior to trial, or preliminary hearing, called a Pre-trial hearing.  This is to give the prosecutor and defense counsel an opportunity to discuss the relevant issues prior to trial.  

Statistically, many criminal cases are resolved through a series of negotiations, rather than by jury trial, often known as a plea bargain.  A plea bargain is a guaranteed way for both the prosecutor and the defense to avoid the uncertainty of the jury trial.  

A plea bargain is a settlement where the prosecutor and the defense come to an agreement on how best to resolve the case.  Although an agreement is reached between the prosecutor and the defense, plea bargains are still subject to the approval of the court.  The judge typically accepts the plea bargain struck by the prosecutor and the defense unless he or she feels it is disproportionate to the crime.

Preliminary Hearing

Preliminary hearings are held in felony cases.  The judge decides whether or not there is enough evidence to set the case for trial.  The burden of proof for the prosecutor is to show that a crime may have been committed and the defendant may have committed the crime charged.  The preliminary hearing gives the defense a look at the prosecution’s case and forces the witnesses’ sworn testimony to be part of the record, for trial.  At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the defense motions the court to dismiss the accusations.  The judge may dismiss some or all charges if there has not been enough evidence presented to support them.

Indictments

An Indictment is issued from a Grand Jury.  A Grand Jury is a select group of citizens who meet in a private and are presented with evidence from the prosecutor regarding criminal allegations.  Defense counsel cannot be present.  Defense counsel can provide the prosecutor with exculpatory evidence the prosecutor has a duty to present to the Grand Jury.  The Grand Jury then determines whether criminal charges should be filed.  The prosecutor’s burden of proof, at this stage, is the same as that in a preliminary hearing.  

Pre-Trial Motions

Pre-trial motions are of immense value to criminal defendants.  When warranted, these motions can cause the dismissal of charges or the exclusion of evidence against defendants.

Trials

A trial is where a judge or jury hears all of the facts alleged against a defendant and decides whether that person is guilty or not guilty.  The prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crimes charged.  If a jury trial is held, the jury hears the evidence and makes the determination as to whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.  A bench trial is a trial in which the judge, only, hears the evidence and decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
  
Sentencing

After a person is found guilty of any crime charged, the judge will pronounce sentence at the sentencing hearing.  At the hearing the defense can present facts, circumstances and witnesses favorable to the defendant.  This will factor into the ultimate sentence.  In felony cases, prior to the sentencing hearing, the defendant will be interviewed by the Department of Probation. This report will contain a summary of the facts of the case, and any prior criminal history of the defendant.  It will also contain recommendations from the Department of Probation concerning a recommended sentence.  While a recommendation is only that, it can influence the judge’s decision.

Appeals

Upon a verdict of guilty, there is a right to appeal the conviction.  A Notice of Appeal is the document which begins the appellate process.  The notice must be filed within a specific time limit.  While it is possible in rare occasions that the Supreme Court will allow an appeal to proceed which did not adhere to the time limits for the filing of the notice, in most cases, the appeal will be dismissed without being reviewed.