Infographic: Steps of a Criminal Case and Trial Explained

Infographic: Steps of a Criminal Case and Trial Explained

Steps of a Criminal Case Trial Explained
Steps of a Criminal Case Trial Explained

An explanation of the 11 steps of a criminal case and trial

High-profile criminal cases draw public attention and interest in the federal criminal process. Though every case is different, a typical federal criminal case goes through 11 key steps. Attorneys representing clients at the federal level must understand the complexities and challenges of the legal system.

Federal Criminal Cases

In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) received information on 64,659 federal criminal cases that led to the sentencing of the offenders.

2020 Federal Criminal Cases Statistics

In 2020, 41.1% of federal cases involved immigration crimes. Federal cases also included offenders charged with crimes involving drugs (26.1%), firearms (11.7%), robbery (2%), and fraud, theft, and embezzlement (7.5%).

Types of Federal Cases

Federal courts hear cases that involve the United States as a party, violations of the Constitution or federal laws, citizens of different states, crimes committed on federal lands, and special instances of bankruptcy, patent, and maritime law.

Unique Features of Federal Cases

Federal cases are governed by the United States Code, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Federal Rules of Evidence, and United States Sentencing Guidelines. Federal prosecutors’ jurisdictions can cover cases from around the world, as long as some connection to their districts exists.

The 11 Steps of a Criminal Case: The 11 Steps of a Criminal Case

Although not all cases have to go through all 11 federal criminal case steps, many do. Sometimes, a case involves more than 11 criminal trial process steps before the defendant is sentenced or files an appeal.

1. Investigation

A federal criminal case may be investigated by multiple agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Secret Service (USSS), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The investigation process may involve a search warrant and an arrest. Investigators gather both direct and circumstantial evidence during this stage.

2. Charging

Defendants receive a formal notice listing the charges against them. In felony cases, the prosecutor presents the evidence to a grand jury, calls witnesses to the stand, and outlines the case. The grand jury then votes on whether enough evidence is available to charge the defendant with a crime. At this stage, defendants hire an attorney or request a public defender.

3. Initial Hearing/Arraignment

Defendants stand before a magistrate judge for an initial hearing. During this time, the defendants learn their rights and the charges filed against them. Arrangements are made for the defendants to obtain an attorney and the judge decides whether the defendants will be held in prison or released until trial. The defendants plead guilty or not guilty to the charges.

4. Discovery

The prosecutor and the defense attorney study the facts of the case, interview witnesses, anticipate problems, and create a trial strategy. The prosecutor also provides the defendant with copies of materials and evidence, as well as exculpatory evidence that can hurt the prosecution’s case.

5. Plea Bargaining

If the government has a strong case, it may offer the defendant a plea deal to bypass the trial and lower the risk of a longer sentence. If the defendant pleads guilty, the government may agree not to recommend an enhanced sentence and the judge determines how to punish the defendant. There’s no trial, and the next step is sentencing

6. Preliminary Hearing

In a preliminary hearing, the prosecution calls witnesses and presents evidence, including evidence that can’t be shown to a jury at trial. The defense cross-examines witnesses and doesn’t have the right to object to certain evidence. The defendant may choose to waive a preliminary hearing. The judge decides whether there’s probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime. If there isn’t sufficient evidence, the judge dismisses the charges.

7. Pretrial Motions

The prosecutor responds to or files motions, which are applications made to the court by the prosecutor or the defense attorney requesting the court to decide on certain issues before the trial begins. A motion can impact the courtroom, trial, defendants, testimony, or evidence.

8. Trial

The trial begins with jury selection. Then, the prosecutor and defense attorney make opening statements. The prosecutor begins a direct examination of the first witness, followed by the defense attorney’s cross-examination. Objections are allowed during examination and cross-examination. The prosecutor then questions the witness again through redirect examination to clarify any confusing testimony. After examining all witnesses, the prosecution rests its case. Next, the defense presents witnesses and evidence to the jury, followed by the prosecutor’s cross-examination. Once the defense rests, closing arguments are delivered. The jury privately deliberates to decide whether the defendant is guilty and notifies the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant in open court. If found not guilty, the defendant is allowed to go home.

9. Post Trial Motions

If the defendant is found guilty, the defense can file posttrial motions. A motion for a new trial asks the court to vacate the verdict and grant a new trial. A motion for judgment of acquittal asks the court to nullify the jury’s verdict and allow the defendant to go free. The defense may request a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence. This is done to correct a clerical error in the sentence.

10. Sentencing

To determine the defendant’s sentence, the judge will consider sentencing guidelines from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the presentence report, aggravating and mitigating factors, and statements from victims, defendants, and lawyers.

11. Appeals

Defendants can appeal to the Circuit Court to raise errors that occurred at trial. An appeal can cause the case to go back to trial, reverse a specific conviction, or alter the sentence.

Case Closed

The federal judicial system has been designed to deliver fair and honest judgment through complex laws and legal proceedings. The 11 steps of a federal criminal case form the cornerstone of justice in the United States for every American.