The Anatomy of a Criminal Case: The Indictment
After an investigation is complete and an indictment is filed, the person named in the indictment will be “arraigned” during a hearing known as an “arraignment.” The arraignment is simply a hearing in which the judge reads the charges to the accused and the accused enters a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Once a defense attorney is hired or appointed to represent someone under indictment, the process of discovery and bargaining begins. “Discovery” is learning about the evidence gathered during the investigation that led to the filing of the indictment. The prosecutor is required to disclose this information, and it often includes police reports, recordings of phone calls, witness statements, and videos.
“Bargaining” refers to discussions between the defense attorney and the prosecutor about the strengths and weaknesses of the case. By highlighting the weaknesses of a case, the defense attorney may be able to persuade the prosecutor into dismissing the criminal charges or reach an agreement for a particular sentence.
In some cases, the discovery will reveal the violation of a constitutional right. Upon learning of a constitutional violation, the defense attorney can file a motion to suppress. The purpose of the motion to suppress is to inform the trial judge that evidence was obtained in violation of the constitution, and because of that violation, the evidence should be excluded. If a trial judge agrees, the evidence will likely be barred from use and could very likely result in a dismissal of the indictment.
Although dismissals of charges can occur, most cases are resolved by reaching a plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor. Plea bargain agreements vary depending on the case, but generally fall under one of three categories:
(1) agreement to be placed of deferred adjudication community supervision;
(2) agreement to be placed on community supervision; and
(3) agreement to a set amount of confinement.
When an agreement can be reached, the accused will waive her right to a jury trial and right to appeal. When an agreement cannot be reached, there will be a trial. A trial may be held before a jury or a judge, and both can result in an acquittal or conviction.
People always have a lot of questions regarding the process of plea bargaining and going to trial. Next week, I will explain the differences between the three main categories of plea bargain agreements and the considerations that must be made in deciding whether to go to trial.