Sunday, October 18, 2009

Brief outline of criminal procedure for the writer

DO YOU REMEMBER the old Perry Mason television programs? Some of the most vivid memories of those shows were the courtroom scenes where Perry would artfully get the real culprit to confess on the witness stand. Pretty exciting courtroom action, but did you know that none of those scenes were at a trial? They were actually at what is known as a preliminary hearing.

Let me give you a short primer or how a criminal case is handled by the courts:

After the arrest and booking, the suspect is given an initial appearance where the judge formally informs the defendant of the charges against him and his rights. The defendant does not plea to the charge at this time. The judge will then set bail or release the defendant on his promise to appear for further court dates.

That is followed later by a preliminary hearing where the prosecutor must present enough evidence so that a judge can determine if there is probable cause to send the defendant to trial. Sometimes the preliminary hearing is replaced by a grand jury where the grand jury determines if there is probable cause for a trial. If the grand jury determines there is enough evidence to try the defendant it will issue an indictment which is a written document formally charging the defendant with a crime. If a preliminary hearing is used in place of the grand jury, the formal charges will be prepared by the prosecutor in a document called an information.

Once the indictment or information is filed, the defendant is brought before the court for an arraignment where he is again informed of the charges and now asked to enter a plea. If the plea is guilty, there is no trial and the court can proceed to sentencing. If the plea is not guilty a trial date is set. If the defendant refuses to enter a plea the court will enter a not guilty plea on his behalf.

With a not guilty plea and no disposition of the case through plea bargaining, the case will proceed to the actual trial where the defendant will have the option of being tried by the court (a judge only) or by a jury.

I hope this clears up some of the procedural questions writers have when writing about criminal court activities. There is obviously more detail, but this should suffice for most writing situations.

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