Explore True Crimes
A Criminal Case - Start to Finish
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Most criminal cases begin with a law enforcement agency. A city police department, the county sheriff, or the state police investigate a case depending upon where the crime takes place. At times, a crime will cross county lines and allow more than one agency to have jurisdiction. If it crosses state lines, then the FBI may have jurisdiction. In some cases like mine, the police arrive at an active crime scene and arrest the suspect at that time.
When a police officer or agency has probable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony has been committed, the officer writes a report and refers the case to a prosecuting attorney’s office. Prosecuting attorneys are elected officials who represent the state, and the victim is not allowed to hire private counsel. In fact, the case will be styled (or titled), “Commonwealth/State vs. Defendant.” The victim is not the party bringing the action; rather it is the State or Commonwealth.
A person suspected of a crime may be charged in one of two ways. The first is through an official complaint from the prosecutor’s office based on an official police report and filed with the court. In the second method, if the charge is a felony, the prosecutor may also convene a grand jury that makes a charging decision based upon the available evidence. They will return an indictment with a “True Bill” or “No True Bill.” Once the grand jury indicts the accused, the prosecutor has established probable cause for the arrest which means the State cannot be sued by the suspect for malicious prosecution or the police for false arrest. Some actions taken by the State/Commonwealth are not related to the victim’s interest but rather the states. At times, this may create tension between the victim and the prosecutor.
Arrest Made or Warrant Issued
When probable cause has been determined to establish a crime has been committed, by apprehending the suspect at the scene, a hearing in district court or an indictment from a grand jury, the court will issue a warrant asking for the suspect’s arrest, or the appropriate agency will make the arrest.
The first court appearance is called an arraignment. This is a brief hearing where the judge reads the charges against the defendant and the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty on the record. The judge then determines if the defendant will receive a public defender. The defendant may post bail at this time, allowing his or her release, the judge may opt to submit the suspect to the pre-trial release program, or the defendant may stay in jail until the case is resolved.
After the arraignment but before trial, several court hearings that may or may not occur depending on the type and severity of the case. These hearings include Preliminary Hearings, Pre-Trial Conferences, a variety of motions, and other hearings as deemed necessary by the circumstances of the case. Plea agreements are often negotiated and resolved during this time.
A preliminary hearing determines if a person charged with a felony (a serious crime punishable by a term in the state prison) should stand trial for the crime charged, based on whether there is substantial evidence that they committed the crime. It is held in the lowest local court but only if the prosecutor has filed the charge without asking the Grand Jury for an indictment for the alleged crime. Such a hearing must be held within a few days after arraignment (presentation in court of the charges and the defendant’s right to plead guilty or not guilty). If the judge finds sufficient evidence to try the defendant, the case moves forward. If there is no such convincing evidence, the judge will dismiss the charges.
A pre-trail is a meeting of the prosecutor and the defense attorney held before the court prior to the commencement of actual courtroom proceedings. Generally, the term “pretrial conference” is used interchangeably with the term “pretrial hearing.” A pretrial conference may be conducted for several reasons: (1) to expedite disposition of the case, (2) to help the court establish managerial control over the case, (3) to discourage wasteful pretrial activities, (4) to improve the quality of the trial with thorough preparation, and (5) to facilitate a settlement of the case.
At the arraignment, the defendant may be appointed a public defender if they cannot afford an attorney of their own.
In many cases, the prosecuting attorney assigned to the case will offer a plea bargain. A plea bargain requires the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for considerations from the prosecutor’s office. Most criminal cases settle and do not ever reach the trial stage. This can be a benefit for the victim who will not have to endure the trial and appeallate process. It can also be a disadvantage since the plea agreement means significantly less time in prison than the defendant would have received if convicted at trial. The victim does not get to have a “day in court,” which on an emotional level may work to bring significant healing. The power of having a judge or jury validate what happened has enormous value. Each victim has to consider if a plea outweighs the stress and trauma of enduring a trial. That is a personal choice.
A defendant is afforded a chance to defend himself or herself against the charges laid by the State at a jury trial or court trial. District Court trials are for misdemeanors and are overseen by a judge or jury. Felonies may be processed through District Court then be sent to a Grand Jury for indictment. The jury makes the final decision on guilt or innocence based upon the evidence presented to them. There is a guilty phase of trial and a sentencing phase of trial. The sentencing phase gives the victim the opportunity to speak to the jury and ask them for what they need – a future without the threat of repeated violence from the defendant.
If a defendant goes to trial and is found not guilty, they are considered to be acquitted and may not be charged again for the crimes of which they were accused.
When a defendant is found guilty of their crime by a jury or judge, they are considered to be convicted. Convictions may be appealed to a higher court for relief.
Once a defendant has plead guilty or been convicted of the charges against them, sentencing is imposed by a judge. The terms of the sentence will vary based upon the crime type and severity and the defendant’s previous convictions, if any.
When a police officer or agency has probable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony has been committed, the officer writes a report and refers the case to a prosecuting attorney's office.