If you have been charged with a crime, you need to understand the legal process in which you're about to participate involuntarily. Know how it works to help you protect your rights and avoid injustices. To help anyone facing a criminal case or helping a loved one navigate one, read on to discover a short guide to the criminal law process.
1. Investigation and Arrest
You or your loved one has likely already experienced the investigation and arrest part of the criminal law system. Law enforcement investigated a criminal act and determined that the defendant most likely committed it.
In many cases, a behind-the-scenes process known as a grand jury has also occurred. Grand juries hear the evidence presented by the prosecution and determine if there is sufficient cause to move forward for trial. Defendants are not involved in grand juries. However, the decision of a grand jury only brings charges and does not have a bearing on your future trial.
This is the point in a criminal case at which the defendant chooses how they will plead. In general, you may plead guilty, innocent, or no contest. A plea of no contest has much the same effect as a guilty plea, but it doesn't specifically admit guilt to the crime.
Those who plead innocent will then move forward to a trial to determine their guilt or innocence. Defendants who plead guilty or no contest skip the trial and are sentenced by a judge.
3. Pre-Trial Process
The period before a jury trial begins is an important one. One of its biggest components is known as discovery. The United States' justice system is predicated on the idea that cases should be won on their merits — not on unfair advantages for either party. So pre-trial discovery allows each side to request information or allows access to relevant evidence from the other side.
Your lawyer will conduct discovery through a variety of means. One is a deposition in which a person involved in the case is asked questions under oath with attorneys present. Depositions permit you to have a better idea what witnesses the prosecution may call and what they are likely to testify to.
Interrogatories and requests for admission are written questions submitted by one party to the other party. These questions seek to establish which parts of the case are conceded or in agreement and which are in dispute. Finally, both sides may request relevant documents, access to locations or evidence, physical examinations, and other details.
Along with discovery, the pre-trial process is a time for lawyers to request motions from the court. For instance, if you believe that a piece of evidence was obtained illegally, you may ask for a hearing to request that the judge bar it from being presented in court.
In most trials, the prosecution's attorneys begin by presenting their case and arguments. You will then present your defense. Both sides may then give counterarguments to things that came up during the trial.
After both sides have made their case, the jury will retire to deliberate. Most criminal trials are decided by a jury of strangers. In Virginia, felony trials use juries of twelve persons while misdemeanor cases have seven-person juries. Your lawyers will have had the opportunity to ask questions of potential jurors before the trial began so you have more assurance of impartiality.
Sentencing is not done by the jury, unless your attorney requests jury sentencing, although they make recommendations to the judge. The judge will then consider all the relevant factors, including the circumstances and the defendant's history and personal situation, and determine an appropriate sentence.
All this can easily intimidate anyone who is unfamiliar with it. So your best resource is an experienced criminal law attorney. Virginia residents can call on Tri Cities Law Group. For more than 27 years, Attorney Paul Roskin has assisted your neighbors in getting a fair trial and the best outcome possible. Call today to make an appointment and get answers to your questions.