Having trouble keeping up with all the trials in the news? Don’t worry! I got you.
Assuming that the perpetrator isn’t already known, the police will conduct an investigation in order to find evidence which may indicate who committed the crime. During the investigation, the police will collect physical or digital evidence, interview witnesses, follow-up on leads, and more. If you’ve ever watched a crime drama, you’ve probably seen actors portraying detectives and officers during the investigation. In fact, the hit television show, The First 48 follows real police investigators as they attempt to find the perpetrators of the crime. In many crime shows, both real and dramatized, the show generally ends when a suspect is apprehended. However, once the suspect is apprehended, it’s far from over—in fact, you could argue that it’s only just begun.
Hopefully you know that police cannot just randomly arrest people without any reason whatsoever. In order to make an arrest, police need to have probable cause. In the simplest terms, probably cause (for an arrest) means that there’s enough evidence for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect committed the crime. Generally, there are two ways for a police officer to arrest a person. First, the officer can provide an affidavit to a judge about the evidence that they have against a person. The judge can review the evidence described in the affidavit and, if they conclude that there’s enough evidence supporting the likelihood that this person is involved to file charges, the Judge can sign the arrest warrant, giving officers the ability to arrest the suspect. However, if a police officer witnesses a person committing a crime, destroying evidence, or attempting to escape from the scene of a crime or fleeing from the police in general, the officer can arrest the person without a warrant—though they will only be able to hold the suspect for a limited amount of time. When a person is being arrested, the police must administer the Miranda Warning. This comes from the U.S. Supreme Court case of State of Arizona v. Miranda, wherein it was established that the police must advise a suspect of certain Constitutional rights; including: right to remain silent, right to counsel, and that anything they say can and will be used against them. If these rights aren’t administered, or administered properly, it can result in evidence given by a suspect being thrown out, or considered inadmissible at trial.
Charged with the Crime
After the suspect is arrested, the prosecution will decide whether or not there’s enough evidence to file charges against the accused. If the prosecution decides that there is not enough evidence, the accused will likely be released. However, if the prosecution decides that there is enough evidence, the prosecution will file charges against the suspect. Note: only prosecutors can file charges. Ordinary citizens, victims, or witnesses cannot “press charges” or “file charges.” Although, victims may elect not to testify which could impact the prosecution’s ability to file charges. Once the prosecutor files charges, the suspect is brought forward for an “arraignment” where the judge determines if there is sufficient evidence to bind the matter over for trial- meaning the suspect aka defendant will have to have either a jury or bench trial wherein the state must prove the guilt of the individual charged with the offense. Alternatively, prosecutors can present evidence to a grand jury. You can think of a grand jury like a normal jury. Except, instead of deciding whether or not a suspect is guilty at trial, a grand jury reviews the evidence that the police have collected and the grand jury decides whether or not there’s enough evidence to conclude that the suspect probably committed the crime. The Defendant doesn’t get to submit any contradictory evidence in a grand jury proceeding. If the grand jury concludes that yes, there is enough evidence, they will hand down an indictment. Prosecutors do not have to get a grand jury indictment in order to charge a person with a crime. It’s an extra step and is generally just a formality. Grand jury proceedings are more common when the prosecutor wants to be removed from the decision about whether to proceed with charges, either for personal or political reasons.
So Many Pre-Trial Hearings
The first hearing is when the Defendant is required to enter their plea: Guilty, not guilty, no contest, etc. Obviously, if the Defendant pleads guilty, there is no need to go to trial. It’s only when a defendant pleads “not guilty” that a trial is required. After a suspect is charged or indicted, there will be a lot of pre-trial hearings. Depending on the complexity and seriousness of the case, there can be years’ worth of pre-trial hearings—especially when the perpetrator waives their right to a speedy trial. Police can’t just bring any evidence into the court room that they choose. A judge has to agree that the evidence is credible and relevant before the evidence goes before the jury. The defense will generally want to challenge a lot of the police’s evidence. For example, if the only solid evidence that police have is DNA evidence, the defense will be looking for ways to get the DNA evidence “thrown out.” The State and the Defense are required to exchange evidence with each other, or tell them what evidence they have to support the suspect’s guilt, and/or what evidence they have to contradict the suspect’s potential guilt. Failure to exchange this evidence can result in it being excluded, or potentially getting the defendant a new trial. Failing to disclose “exculpatory evidence” is known as a “Brady violation.”
Going to trial is expensive for the state as well as the suspect. In fact, there are times where the prosecution actually needs to get approval for a larger budget for the trial. The prosecution has to hire experts to testify at trial, they have to send evidence out to be processed, and more. If the defendant doesn’t have money to hire their own experts, the state will pay for their experts, but the amount has to be approved by the judge. Most criminal cases don’t actually go to trial. In order to spare the state the expense, they usually offer plea deals that allow the defendant to plea to a lesser charge and/or accept a less harsh sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. For example, a serial killer may plead guilty to all charges in exchange for life in prison as opposed to the death penalty.
The Actual Trial
If no plea deal is offered or accepted, the trial will happen. It is the State’s obligation to prove the guilt of the individual charged. This is where the standard “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” comes from- the state must prove that the suspect did the charged offense “beyond a reasonable doubt”- this doesn’t mean ALL doubts, or with 100% certainty, but usually about 90% or more likely. (Although the State or Defense is never allowed to mention percentages like this in trial). When the trial will happen depends on each case and the circumstances. In cases involving the death penalty, the trial could be years out since the defense will want to leave no stone unturned. While most cases don’t take that long to go to trial, they definitely can when they involve serious crimes such as multiple murders. Although most TV shows show criminal juries has having 12 jurors, that is not always required. The number of jurors may vary from state to state. The process of selecting a jury is called “Voir Dire”- this is a time for the judge and attorneys to talk to the potential jurors and see if they’ve heard anything about the case, and have any preconceived notions about the innocence or guilt of the Defendant. If a juror expresses bias against one side or the other, or that they’ve already come to a conclusion about the case without hearing all the evidence, they won’t be permitted to serve on the jury. During the case, jurors will be told to only consider the evidence presented at trial. If a juror attempts to get information outside the courtroom, or do their own investigating, they will be dismissed from the jury, and potentially have sanctions from the court. The jurors are instructed not to talk about the evidence presented at all during the trial with each other until all evidence has been presented, and they are sent to deliberate. Only then can they discuss the case with each other. Jury service can be long and difficult. Although your employer cannot fire you for missing work for jury service, you may not be required to get paid by your employer, and the amount the State pays for jury service is usually very small, and not likely to compensate you fully for fulfilling your public duty. In criminal cases, the trial is not always the end. Very often individuals who are convicted of a crime will appeal their conviction with the various appellate courts within their state, or even sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court. If there were mistakes made, or evidence included that shouldn’t have been, that can change the outcome of the jury.