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Arrest to verdict: the criminal court process

The criminal court process is a complicated machine that serves the purpose of determining a suspect's innocence or guilt. 

Perry Mason, the famous fictional Los Angeles defense attorney, was often in a court battle with his nemesis, District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Mason is perhaps best known for his objections to Hamilton’s questioning saying, “Objection your honor, that question is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial.”

If a person has never been arrested or charged with a crime, not served on a jury, or worked in the legal or law enforcement professions it can often be unclear as to what happens after a suspect is arrested and charged with a crime, and no, unlike Perry Mason, trials don’t happen in 60 minutes or less.

When a suspect is arrested and charged with a crime, it becomes the responsibility of the state, which is represented by the prosecuting attorney, to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the suspect in fact committed the crime in question. The burden of proof lies solely on the prosecution.

The first time that a suspect appears before the court is in the arraignment. An arraignment is the initial hearing in which the charges are read to the defendant publicly, typically before an associate judge. At this time, the defendant will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If a defendant refuses to enter a plea, the judge will automatically enter a plea of not guilty on behalf of the defendant. 

During the arraignment, the defendant’s bond can also be lowered or raised in some cases. Defendants also have the right to waive (or skip) the arraignment process, which automatically enters a plea of not guilty. The defendant must sign a written waiver of arraignment in order for this to happen.

During the arraignment, the judge will also set dates for preliminary hearings or case reviews. The court will also determine the deadline that all documentation needs to be submitted to the court. Preliminary hearings, documentation deadlines, and even trial can be pushed back once or several times through the process by motions for continuance made by the prosecutor or defense attorney.

Often times these hearings can be put off for several months and even years. Many times in the mix, a case review hearing will be held so that everyone involved, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge can do a “check-up” on the status of the case.

The defendant’s next formal court appearance will be the preliminary hearing. The preliminary hearing is often referred to as a “mini trial” and is usually held before an associate circuit judge. During this hearing, the judge will hear all evidence that the prosecution has in a case. The purpose of this hearing is to determine that there is sufficient evidence for the matter to go to trial. 

During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution will submit all evidence and witnesses and the defense will have an opportunity to refute evidence (making it inadmissible) and cross-examine witnesses.

If the judge determines there is not sufficient evidence to proceed, then the charges are dismissed and the defendant is released. At this time, the prosecutor may file new charges or just drop the case altogether. This will usually depend on the nature of the crime and how “good a case” the prosecutor feels he or she can make.

If the judge determines that sufficient evidence exists, the case is then “bound over” to the circuit court system and the case will then become assigned to a circuit judge.

A defendant's attorney can opt to waive a preliminary hearing and go straight to the circuit court level for trial setting. Also, the entire associate circuit court process is skipped if a prosecutor has filed charges through a grand jury indictment. 

Once at the circuit level, some of the hearings will often “start over” at this time. The circuit judge will do case reviews, set deadlines for motions, and officially set the matter for trial. Again these hearings can often be pushed out for months or years.

It is during this time that prosecutors will often offer the defendant a plea bargain. If accepted, the defendant may plead guilty to a lesser charge or plead guilty to the crime charged with a shorter sentence. The plea bargain must be accepted by the judge and agreed to by the defendant, his or her attorney, and the prosecutor.

In the case of a plea bargain, the deal usually includes the sentence, so a defendant is often sentenced immediately.

If no plea bargain is reached, then it will come time for trial. This can sometimes be two years or more after the initial charges have been filed.

Trials are often set for one, two or three days, depending on the nature of the crime and number of witnesses or individuals involved. The first day of a trial includes selection of the jury. Once the jury is selected, then the prosecution is allowed to present their case to the court, including all evidence and witnesses.

When the prosecution rests, the defense will present a rebuttal, refute evidence, and offer witnesses to provide counter testimony to witnesses of the prosecution.

Once all evidence and witnesses have been presented and both sides rest it now comes time for the jury to contemplate a verdict. In some cases this process takes only minutes, but in more difficult cases it can take hours. 

If found not guilty, the defendant will be free and the charges are gone. This is where double jeopardy comes into play and prevents the defendant from ever being tried for this particular crime again.

If found guilty, the defendant is sentenced and taken off to prison, right? Not exactly.

In some cases a jury will then hear even more evidence and go back to the jury room once again to determine a recommendation of a sentence. A date will be set in the near future for sentencing by the judge.

Why is all the time and care put into the criminal prosecution process? The answer is that everyone who is a citizen of the United States is entitled to due process, or fair treatment through the judicial system.  

Now, the next time someone asks why it takes four years for someone to go to prison for a crime – give them the short answer – there is no short answer.

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Matt McFarland is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616, or at mmcfarland@dailyjournalonline.com.

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