When federal authorities believe someone has committed a crime, they typically spend time gathering evidence and building a case. Before the case goes before a judge or jury, there are certain procedures that must occur. Since the judicial process can be complex and confusing, it is often helpful for those facing federal charges to learn as much as possible about what lies ahead and the events leading to a criminal trial.
This judicial process usually begins with the grand jury, which is a panel of citizens who review the evidence to determine if it is strong enough to result in formal charges. If the grand jury hands down an indictment, it means the case is ready to move forward. The next pretrial steps include the following:
- The defendant appears before a judge, who explains the charges.
- The judge decides if there is probable cause against the defendant.
- The judge determines whether the defendant will remain free until trial or be incarcerated.
- The defendant meets with counsel to discuss the possibility of pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser charge or more lenient sentence.
- The defendant appears at an arraignment during which he or she enters a plea.
If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge will schedule a time for sentencing. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the next step is a criminal trial. To obtain a conviction, the prosecution must be certain it can prove its case to a jury so they have no reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt.