Criminal Justice Process

If you are the victim of a crime, witness to a crime, or know something related to a crime, your recollections are important. Law enforcement officers, as well as the prosecutor handling the case, may interview you. Generally, a prosecution begins with the issuance of an arrest warrant by a local magistrate. The magistrate will determine whether a defendant will be released prior to trial, and, if so, will set bond for the defendant (the person charged with a crime.) If the defendant cannot make the bond and remains incarcerated, a bond hearing may be held in court to decide whether the accused remains incarcerated or is released prior to trial.

Normally, there is a first appearance at which time the matter is scheduled for preliminary hearing (if the charge is a felony), or for trial (if the charge is a misdemeanor). If you are needed to testify in court, you will receive a subpoena, which is an order from the court requiring your appearance. Felonies are more serious crimes punishable by confinement in the penitentiary and/or jail.Misdemeanors are less serious crimes punishable by a fine and/or up to twelve months in jail.

Felony Cases
Preliminary Hearing
This hearing is held in General District Court or Juvenile and Domestic Relations (JDR) Court where the judge must hear only enough evidence to find probable cause that the defendant committed the crime with which he/she is charged. If the judge finds probable cause, the case will be certified to the Grand Jury (GJ) in Circuit Court. Occasionally, defendants will be directly indicted by the Grand Jury, bypassing the preliminary hearing.

Grand Jury
Made up of five to seven County citizens who hear evidence presented only by the Commonwealth, the GJ determines if there is probable cause to indict the defendant. If the GJ returns a true bill of indictment, the case will then be set for trial in Circuit Court.

In this Circuit Court proceeding, the defendant enters a  plea of guilty or not guilty to the   charge(s). In most cases, the defendant will enter a plea of not guilty at this stage of the proceedings.

Held in Circuit Court, this proceeding determines whether the defendant’s guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge or jury will decide this issue but the judge has the power to reduce or even to dismiss the crime of which a jury convicts. A judge cannot, however, convict a defendant of a crime greater than that of which the jury convicted. In most cases, attorneys will request that all material witnesses be excluded from the courtroom while hearing the evidence in order to prevent them from hearing other testimony that may influence their recollections. You should not discuss your testimony with other witnesses in the case.

After conviction of a defendant, a sentencing hearing will be conducted. Judges sentence criminal defendants and must consider, but cannot exceed, recommendations of juries in cases heard by juries. Juries hear sentencing evidence in a separate proceeding immediately following a guilty verdict. Such evidence includes the defendant’s prior criminal record and may, with the victim’s consent, include testimony or a written statement from the victim regarding the impact of the crime on them.

The judge may order a written, confidential presentence report, prepared by the court’s probation officer, outlining a history of the defendant’s family, employment, health (including drug and/or alcohol use) and other facts relevant to the case. The Court shall also consider sentencing guidelines reflecting sentences that other defendants, similarly situated, have received for similar crimes.

A defendant may appeal his/her Circuit Court conviction to a higher court. If an appeal is noted, the Commonwealth’s Attorney will file a document, referred to as a brief, explaining the case to the higher court. The appellate courts will determine, based upon documents from both sides, whether the case should be upheld, sent back to Circuit Court for retrial, or dismissed.

Release from incarceration
Regardless of the sentence imposed, the defendant in most cases will eventually be eligible for release from prison. If you would like information regarding release dates or how you can provide input regarding release, contact the Victim-Witness Assistance Program at 804-556-5370.
Misdemeanor Cases
Misdemeanors are tried in General District or JDR Court before a judge without a jury. You will be asked to stand in front of the judge and, under oath, explain what happened and answer questions from the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the defense attorney. If convicted and appealed, the trial is then held in Circuit Court before a judge if all parties waive the right to a jury trial as explained above regarding felony cases.