The first time a defendant appears in D.C. Superior Court is called the “arraignment” (misdemeanor cases) or the “presentment” (felony cases). First appearances in U.S. District Court are arraignments, for both misdemeanor and felony cases. Victims are not required to attend this hearing but may if they wish. At this hearing, the criminal charges are read to the defendant, and the judge determines if there is enough evidence to proceed. The judge also decides whether to initially hold or release the defendant. Defendants charged with a misdemeanor are usually released if the judge believes they will return to the court for trial. The judge may decide to hold a defendant if the defendant has another criminal case pending or is on probation or parole for another criminal offense. For certain violent felony offenses, the judge must grant the prosecutor’s request to initially hold the defendant until the detention hearing.
If the defendant is released pending trial, the judge may impose conditions of release, including electronic monitoring, home confinement, or placement in a halfway house. The prosecutor can request that the judge order a criminal “stay away” order requiring the defendant not to make contact with the victim at any point while the case is pending. Regardless of whether the judge approves a stay away order, victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault can seek a Civil Protection Order. For more information about Civil Protection Orders, see page 30. A victim has the right to give input to the court at any public hearing involving a defendant’s release. For a full listing of a crime victim’s rights, click here.
If a case goes to trial, the victim will likely be contacted by the defense attorney seeking to ask questions about the case. The victim can choose whether or not to speak to the defense attorney. If the victim has questions or concerns about an interaction with the defense attorney, the victim should contact an advocate or the prosecutor.
Pretrial Detention Hearing
If the judge ordered the defendant to be initially held in jail, another hearing occurs within 3 to 5 days. At this hearing, another judge determines whether the defendant should continue to be held or if the defendant can be released with conditions imposed. These conditions are designed to ensure the safety of the victim and the community, and to ensure that the defendant will return to court. It is not uncommon for a defendant who is initially held to be released after this second hearing.
Preliminary Hearing – Is There Probable Cause?
In felony cases, a preliminary hearing must occur no later than 20 days after the initial appearance, unless the defendant waives this right. At this hearing, a judge determines if there is enough evidence or “probable cause” to show that the defendant committed the crime. The prosecutor usually calls a police officer to testify about the facts of the case.
At the preliminary hearing, if the judge does not find probable cause, the case will be dismissed. If the case is dismissed, the prosecutor may choose to gather more evidence and recharge the accused. If the judge finds there is probable cause, the case will proceed to a grand jury.
Grand Jury Decides Whether to Issue an Indictment
In felony cases, even if a judge finds probable cause at the preliminary hearing, the law requires a second finding of probable cause by a grand jury. A grand jury is different from a “petit,” or trial, jury, which determines whether a criminal defendant has been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Grand jury proceedings are not public, meaning that no member of the public, including the victim, is permitted to attend unless called to testify. Neither the accused nor the defense attorney is permitted to attend. The grand jury hears evidence against the accused presented by the prosecutor and decides whether there is probable cause to believe that the accused committed the crime. If the evidence is sufficient, the grand jury issues an “indictment” (pronounced “in-DITE-ment”), which is a written statement of the specific crime(s) charged against the accused. If the evidence is not sufficient, the charges against the accused will be dismissed. To obtain an indictment, the victim is usually required to testify before the grand jury. In this case, the victim will receive a subpoena (an official notice to attend) with the date, time, and place for the grand jury proceeding.
If a grand jury indicts the accused (now defendant), a felony arraignment will be scheduled. At this hearing, the defendant is informed of the charges, advised of their constitutional rights, and required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. The defendant may enter a “no contest” plea, meaning the defendant denies responsibility for the charges but agrees to accept punishment.
Sometimes a defendant will plead guilty at this hearing, following negotiations between the prosecutor and the defendant. The prosecutor may offer to drop one or more of the charges against the defendant, to seek lesser charges, or to ask for a lesser sentence, if the defendant enters a guilty plea. In certain misdemeanor cases, the prosecutor may offer a deferred sentencing agreement, where the defendant agrees to waive the right to a trial, pleads guilty to the offense, and agrees to complete certain conditions, such as counseling and/or community service. If the defendant completes these conditions, the court will allow the defendant to withdraw the guilty plea, and the government will dismiss the charges. If the defendant does not complete the conditions, the guilty plea will be permanently included in the defendant’s record, and the defendant will be sentenced by the court, which may include jail, community supervision, or a fine.
Before the judge accepts the guilty plea, the judge will ask the defendant questions to be certain that the defendant is sure of their rights and is not pleading guilty because of pressure or fear. If the judge accepts a no contest or guilty plea, no trial occurs, and the defendant is sentenced at a separate hearing. In a misdemeanor case, sentencing can take place within a few days or weeks. If the case is a felony, sentencing typically happens at least six weeks later. See page 15 for more information about sentencing.
If the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, the judge will hold one or more pretrial hearings, called “status hearings,” to obtain updates on the case and to ensure that the attorneys are ready for trial. Motion hearings may also be held to resolve certain legal issues before the trial begins. For example, the defense may file a motion for a pretrial hearing to determine whether certain evidence was unconstitutionally obtained by police and should be excluded from the trial.
If the defendant pleads not guilty, a trial takes place. Victims will be notified by the prosecutor’s office of the trial’s date, time, and place. Victims are not required to attend each day of the trial, but must attend if they are required to testify. Defendants charged with felony offenses have a right to a jury trial, and for most misdemeanor cases the final decision, or “verdict,” is made by a judge. During a trial, the prosecution presents evidence and conducts direct examinations where the witnesses are questioned. The defense attorney is allowed to then question the prosecution’s witnesses, which is called a cross examination. After the prosecutor’s case is presented, the defense attorney may present evidence or call witnesses, but is not required to, because the prosecutor has the burden to prove the case. The defendant has a constitutional right to remain silent and not testify. If the defendant chooses to testify, the prosecutor is permitted to cross examine the defendant. If the defense does present evidence, the prosecutor is permitted to cross examine all defense witnesses and to respond by introducing “rebuttal evidence.”
Verdict – Guilty or Not Guilty?
At the end of the trial, the judge or jury decides whether the prosecution has proved the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When the jury is deciding, it is called “deliberations.” All of the jurors must agree on the verdict. If the jury cannot agree, or even if only one juror does not agree, there is no verdict. This is called a “hung jury” or a “mistrial.” If there is a hung jury, the prosecutor’s office can retry the defendant, make a new plea offer, or dismiss the case. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will set a date for the sentencing hearing and will decide if the defendant (now called the offender) will be held in jail until this hearing. In very rare cases, a judge may overturn a jury’s guilty verdict. If this happens, the judge can issue a not guilty verdict or order a new trial. The prosecutor will remain in contact with the victim after the trial ends to answer any questions, and victim advocates from the prosecutor’s office will remain available to support the victim.
If the defendant is found not guilty, the defendant is “acquitted” and is free to go. Even if the case is dismissed, victims have the right to seek a Civil Protection Order, or to bring a case in civil court against the defendant. More information about the D.C. civil justice system can be found here.
After a guilty verdict or a guilty plea, the judge will schedule a sentencing hearing. Victims can choose to, but are not required to, attend the sentencing hearing. Before the sentencing hearing, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) will submit a pre-sentence report to the judge. This report includes information about the defendant and the Victim Impact Statement if the victim writes one prior to the completion of the pre-sentence report. Victim Impact Statements can also be submitted through the prosecutor or directly to the judge. A victim can choose to make a verbal Victim Impact Statement at sentencing in addition to or instead of a written statement.
At the sentencing hearing, the prosecution and defense will present information about the circumstances surrounding the offender’s criminal behavior, such as what led that person to commit the crime. Victims have the right to make a statement at the sentencing hearing if they choose. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will sentence the defendant.
Victim Impact Statement
In criminal proceedings, the victim has the right to submit, prior to sentencing, a written Victim Impact Statement describing any emotional, psychological, financial, or physical harm done to or loss suffered by the victim. The judge will consider the Victim Impact Statement in determining the appropriate sentence to be imposed. A victim can also make a verbal Victim Impact Statement at sentencing in addition to or instead of a written one. Victim advocates can assist victims in preparing these statements. The Victim Impact Statement should describe:
- How the crime affected the victim and the victim’s family;
- The emotional impact of the crime on the victim and the victim’s family;
- The financial impact on the victim and the victim’s family;
- The victim’s recommendations about how the offender should be sentenced; and
- Any other information the victim would like to tell the court.
In deciding a sentence, judges are guided in their decision by formal sentencing guidelines, but they can consider special circumstances as well. A judge may find good reasons to give a lighter sentence or decide that the crime was serious enough to justify a harsher sentence. For some crimes, there are mandatory minimum sentences that require judges to impose a sentence no shorter than a period of incarceration set by law.