So far in our series on court 101, we’ve covered courtroom positions and personnel, how a trial works, and the steps and process of a courtroom trial. Our goal in this series is to introduce our readers to very basics of the legal process so they might be prepared if they ever have to endure it. With that in mind, today we’re covering steps in a criminal case. Stepping back from the trial itself, we’ll look at the steps involved from arraignment to either acquittal or conviction and sentencing.
Pre-Trial Steps in a Criminal Case
First, let’s go through the steps in order. When people face a criminal case, they often feel taken for a ride. They can feel like the court decides their fate even before they go to trial because there’s all sorts of things that have to happen before the trial begins. So let’s review what are these things.
- Arraignment – The court informs the defendant of the charges against them. The defendant enters a plea, either guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
- Preliminary Hearing – The prosecution presents evidence to a judge to demonstrate the defendant as a legitimate suspect of the crime, also known as probable cause. If the judge deems a trial is not necessary, then the charges are dropped.
- 2nd Arraignment – Some states involve a second arraignment if the judge finds probable cause. At the second arraignment, a superior court reads the charges against the defendant and the defendant again enters a plea.
- Pretrial Hearing and Motions – This step allows for possible plea bargains, and settling any disputed claims between the prosecution and defense.
Steps in a Criminal Case After the Trial
Second, after the steps mentioned above, the trial comes next.
- Jury Trial – The prosecution represents the plaintiff, and tries to prove the guilt of the defendant to a jury. The defense tries to either prove the defendant’s innocence or, more commonly, to undermine the prosecution’s case.
After the trial itself, the following steps can occur.
- Acquittal – If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, then the charges are dropped and the defendant is free to go.
- Sentencing – If the jury finds the defendant guilty, then the judge determines their punishment. This can occur either at the end of the trial itself, or may occur at a separate court date.
- Appeal – If the defense wants to challenge the verdict or the sentencing, they can make an appeal.