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Court Process


From Arrest to Sentence

This is an outline of the course a criminal case involving a felony, such as rape, follows through the court systems. Although you, as a witness, are not involved at every step, it can help you understand your role and the way the criminal justice system works by reviewing this information.

ARRAIGNMENT

This is the first court proceeding and the first time the defendant appears before a judge. The purpose of arraignment is to inform him of charges against him, his right to be represented by a lawyer, and his right to an adjournment to obtain a lawyer. He must enter a plea to the charges at this time - it is usually "not guilty". Bail may be set by the judge. If the defendant does not have the money to pay bail, he will be put in jail. The amount set for bail reflects only the judge's view of the defendant's past record and likelihood that he will appear at future court dates. No testimony is heard at this time. The next court date is scheduled; This may be a preliminary hearing or a direct presentation to the Grand Jury. The Assistant District Attorney (A.D.A.) decides how to proceed.

PRELIMINARY HEARING

Held before a Criminal Court judge in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. The purpose is to establish reasonable cause that a crime occurred and that the defendant may have committed the crime charged. The victim must be present to testify. The defendant and his lawyer are present and the defense lawyer may cross-examine you after the A.D.A questions you about the crime. After hearing the testimony, the judge makes one of the following decisions:

  • Reasonable cause exists and the case can be presented to the Grand Jury, or
  • Reasonable cause exists, but the elements of a felony charge do not, then the charge may be reduced to a misdemeanor.
  • Further proceedings will take place in the local criminal court, or
  • Reasonable cause does not exist and charges will be dismissed

For various legal reasons, sometimes the preliminary hearing is not held and the case will be presented directly to the Grand Jury.

GRAND JURY PROCEEDING

The Grand Jury is made up of 23 jurors. It is a secret proceeding, meaning it is not open to the public. There is no judge and no defendant or defense attorney present. When testifying before the Grand Jury, only the A.D.A , the jurors and a court stenographer will be in the room. The purpose of the Grand Jury is to listen to information concerning felony crimes and to decide, by a vote that:

  • The evidence presented is sufficient and the charges against the person arrested are correct and the case should be held for trial. The vote results in a "true bill" and an indictment is issued against the defendant.
  • The evidence presented is not sufficient for felony charges, and the case will return to the City or Town court for prosecution as a misdemeanor.
  • The evidence presented is not sufficient for any further court action and dismisses the charges. This vote is a "no bill."

You probably have to wait for a few days or a few weeks to learn of the decision. The Grand Jury is "seated" for a term of about a month, and reports out all the votes on all the cases heard. The A.D.A. will tell you when you may expect to hear the results.

After an indictment is filed against the defendant, he is arraigned again before a judge, this time in a Supreme or County Court.

PRE-TRIAL MOTIONS

It usually takes some months for the case to be scheduled for trial. During this time, the defendant may challenge the legality of the evidence against him. A hearing may be held, for example, on the way certain evidence was obtained by the police, or the manner in which the defendant was identified.

If you are needed at any of these pre-trial hearings, the A.D.A. will notify you and explain what will happen (for example, you may be asked about a line-up at which you identified the defendant).

The case may reach a final disposition before a trial is held. This can be arrived at in two ways:

  1. The defendant decides to plead guilty to the indictment, and admit he committed all the crimes he is charged with in the indictment. He may decide to do this due to the strength of the evidence against him. He would enter this acknowledgment of his guilt before a judge and then later be sentenced for the crimes. This is a "conviction."
  2. More frequently, the defendant, the A.D.A and the judge agree that the defendant may plead guilty to a single charge in the indictment that holds multiple charges, or the defendant may plead guilty to a less serious felony, such as Attempted Rape in the First Degree. Also known as a "plea negotiation" or "plea bargain," it serves a legitimate purpose in the criminal justice system.

Often in felony sexual assault offenses, the victim may be relieved at not having to testify at a trial or the A.D.A uses discretion to insure a conviction through the plea offer rather than face the risk of losing the case at trial. The A.D.A. will explain the reasons involved in any plea negotiation, should this occur in your case.

TRIAL

The trial will be held before either an Erie County Court Judge or a New York State Supreme Court Judge. Your testimony will be required. The A.D.A will meet with you beforehand and discuss what will happen. The defendant has the right to ask for a verdict to be decided by a jury (a jury trial) or a judge (a bench trial). At the end of the trial, the Jury or Judge will either:

  1. Find a verdict of guilty on all or some of the charges;
  2. Find a verdict of not guilty on all of the charges (this is called an acquittal); or
  3. In a jury trial, failure to reach a unanimous decision on a verdict, a hung jury is declared and the case may be retried; or
  4. Rarely, a judge declares a mistrial for some legal reason, then the case may be retried.

The trial will begin with opening statements by both attorneys, outlining the case for the jury or judge. Next, prosecution witnesses are called to testify, then defense witnesses. Closing statements are given by both attorneys. If it is a jury trial, the judge will then instruct the jury on the charges in the case before them.

The jury must then reach a unanimous decision on each charge against the defendant - a verdict of guilty or not guilty. As the victim of a crime, you will be a prosecution witness. The courtroom will be open to the public. The defendant is present. After the A.D.A. questions you (on direct examination), the defense attorney will question you (cross examination). When you testify, other witnesses normally will not be allowed in the courtroom. After you have finished, it is usually not necessary to stay. The A.DA. will notify you when a verdict is rendered.

SENTENCING:

The judge is responsible for sentencing the defendant. This occurs some weeks after the trial. During this time, the Probation Department makes a pre-sentence report. This does not mean all convicted defendants are eligible for probation. The pre-sentence report includes an interview with you, the victim of the crime. You will be asked about the impact of the crime on you - the physical, financial, and emotional costs. You may also express your view about an appropriate sentence. Also included in this report is information on the defendant's past criminal record. The judge reviews this report before the sentencing date. You may also write directly to the judge about your feelings on the case.

At the sentencing, the defendant must be present. You may attend and speak at the sentencing. The A.D.A. will inform you of the sentence should you choose not to attend.

The range of sentences the judge may impose is determined by New York State Criminal Procedure Law. Some felony offenses, such as Rape in the First Degree, carry a mandatory prison sentence. The judge is responsible for what the sentence will be, within these guidelines.