Provided by the Victims Services Unit of the District Attorney
Depending on whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony, the criminal justice process can be very lengthy. This is to give you basic information about the stages in the court process and when your presence is required and when it is optional.
If the crime is a misdemeanor, charges will be filed and the defendant (the perpetrator of the crime) will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If he enters a plea of not guilty, the matter will be set for trial before a judge (non-jury) or a jury. A jury trial in a misdemeanor case consists of six jurors, while a felony jury trial consists of twelve jurors.
Your presence is required at a trial so that you can give your testimony as the victim. A subpoena is issued and delivered to you either by a police officer or by mail. If you live outside the city limits you are entitled to mileage and a small witness fee to attend. If you incurred property loss, property damage, or medical bills, we need this information as soon as possible to determine restitution amounts that we may be able to obtain for you.
Whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony, you can always seek monetary damages through a civil action. If you choose to pursue a civil action you need a private attorney as opposed to the criminal action which this office brings. Your private attorney can best advise you as to what type of damages you can seek and the possibility of recovering those damages from the defendant.
The defendant has many basic rights that may be exercised including the right to remain silent, the right to court appointed counsel (under certain financial conditions), the right to a jury trial, the right to confront his accusers and witnesses, as well as the right to a speedy trial.
Although it may be frustrating, these rights are for everyone under the Constitution. If we proceed correctly and follow these rights without violation, the defendant has very little hope of success on appeal.
You may say that you know the defendant did the crime, was caught in the act, or the proof is very strong, etc., and why would the defendant enter a plea of not guilty when everyone knows the defendant is guilty. The State of Oklahoma through the District Attorney’s Office, is required to prove that the defendant is in fact the person who did the crime, beyond a reasonable doubt. Until the State meets that burden or the defendant pleads guilty, the defendant can stand silent and demand that the State present the necessary evidence. Therefore, sometimes we ask many questions, and repeat many of them as well. We are not trying to pry, but are trying to make a strong case to support a conviction and make the defendant answer for the crime.
If the crime is a felony, the case generally takes longer and is significantly more involved. The following represents a chronological summary of the stages of a felony criminal action:
1. Initial Arraignment – The initial arraignment occurs before a judge at which time the defendant is formally advised of the charges against him. A copy of the charges, in writing, is presented to the defendant, and they enter an initial plea of guilty or not guilty. Your appearance is not required at the initial arraignment. At this stage, which is generally a preliminary hearing (discussed below), a bond if any is determined. A bond is a means by which the defendant is released from jail and the bond stands as a promise to appear at each stage of the case. If the defendant fails to appear at the next scheduled hearing date or commits another crime, the bond may be set higher or may be revoked or denied. You must remember that a bond is not a punishment but is a financial guarantee to appear for court. If the crime involves a homicide, involves weapons, or the defendant has prior felony convictions, the bond may be very high or denied altogether. Therefore, the bond is set on the basis of the nature of the crime.
2. Preliminary Hearing – A preliminary hearing is before a judge who reviews the basic evidence submitted to the District Attorney by a law enforcement official. The judge will decide if there is enough evidence for this case to be presented to a jury. Generally, the defendant does not take the witness stand nor presents evidence or testimony of other witnesses since the preliminary hearing serves as a preview of evidence for trial. If you are the direct victim of a crime such as a property owner in a burglary or larceny case, you will be called to testify. If you are the relative of a victim of a crime such as an assault or homicide, you may not be called upon to testify, depending upon the circumstances. The preliminary hearing deals only with the legality of the evidence and not with the truthfulness of witnesses or the weight or credibility of the evidence; these are issues for a jury to decide. A preliminary hearing may last an hour or several days depending upon the crime and the amount of evidence the State presents to the Judge. At the close of the preliminary hearing the judge will decide whether the case will be submitted to a jury. If so, the judge will announce that the “defendant shall be bound over for trial.” If the defendant raises an issue of illegally seized evidence or similar matters, motions may be filed by the defense to address that issue in a separate hearing. You will need to be present at this hearing.
3. District Court Arraignment – After preliminary hearing, and usually within thirty days, the next hearing conducted is called a district court arraignment. This is another very brief hearing which simply places your case before the District Judge. The defendant is generally allowed to remain free on the bond previously set. If bond has not been set, the Judge will review the bond status at that time. Your presence is not required at this hearing.
4. Speedy Trial – You should be aware that a speedy trial does not necessarily mean next week or even next month. This county holds a jury term two or three times a year. The jury term is shared between civil and criminal cases. The criminal cases tried to a jury are based upon a priority of seriousness, such as murder, rape, felony assault, etc. Priority is also given to cases where the defendant is in jail. The docket lasts three or four weeks and includes 5 to 10 criminal cases. Whether to take a case to jury cannot be discussed in detail here and depends on the individual case. The prosecutor assigned to your case will fully explain this to you in person.
5. Disposition Docket – This is a hearing held approximately thirty days prior to the jury term. At this hearing the court announces the case and calls for a disposition status from the attorneys involved. This hearing is more for the case administration and no testimony is taken. Your presence is not required at this hearing.
At some point in the case, the possibility of a plea bargain will emerge. While the District Attorney’s office is not required to offer a plea bargain, the reality is that with 300 to 400 felony cases filed each year, and the hope of a maximum number of cases to be tried to a jury, it is impossible to take each case to trial, therefore, plea bargaining becomes a necessary part of the process. Naturally, the more serious the crime the less likely a plea bargain will be made. A few of the possibilities are set out below:
Deferred Judgment – The defendant is given the chance of serving time on probation while following strict rules and conditions. Rules and conditions of probation include no drinking or drugs, no additional violations of the law, counseling, drug or alcohol treatment, etc. A deferred judgment means that the defendant is not actually convicted but is placed on probation for a maximum of five years. If the defendant successfully completes the probation, the criminal record may be expunged (erased). On the other hand, if the defendant violates the rules and conditions of probation, he may be sentenced to the maximum allowed by law. Thus, the deferred judgment is a high stakes gamble and only those who are serious about changing their ways generally succeed.
Suspended Sentence – In a suspended sentence the defendant is sentenced the day a plea of guilty is entered. The rules and conditions are the same, but the defendant will always have a criminal record. If the defendant violates probation, the sentence can be revoked. Revocation can only be for the time of the original sentence. In the above sentences, probation may include payment of court costs, fines, court appointed attorney fees, restitution, drug, alcohol, and/or family counseling, as well as Community Service. Failure to abide by any of these requirements can result in revocation of the probation and a greater possibility of prison time.
Incarceration – Prison time is set by law as a punishment for violation of a law, and there is a wide range of punishments. If the defendant has prior convictions or is charged with a violent crime, the likelihood of serving prison time is greater, whether due to a jury trial or plea bargain. Unfortunately due to prison overcrowding and the way time is measured in prison, length of years is calculated differently, and months rather than years equal years. Therefore, the defendant (based upon the nature of the crime) may be released far sooner than you expect (to serve the balance on parole). This is basically the same as a probationary sentence and is subject to rules and conditions of probation. If the rules are violated, just as in full probationary sentences, parole can also be revoked.
Split Sentences – These sentences include both time in prison, and probation (time in/time out). This probation carries the same rules as in the straight probation and if violated the defendant will return to prison to serve the remainder of the sentence.
Community Service – This is an option in lieu of county jail time or in addition to any other sentencing component as a plea bargain or as ordered by the Judge. Community service is a set number of hours which equal one day’s credit for county jail, or for court costs or fines and consists of tasks performed by the defendant for the community, government, or nonprofit charitable agencies, consisting of anything from picking up trash to painting, clerical, or cleaning. This is monitored by a special office in the courthouse and just as with any other option discussed if the defendant fails to perform the community service, jail or prison time could result.
Restitution – Restitution is a remedy given to victims by the court which means that if someone was the victim of a burglary, suffered some type of property loss or damage the Court can order the defendant to pay you back for that loss. Usually monthly payments are set by the Court and are a part of the rules and conditions of probation.
This is not all inclusive but serves as information to you on the different areas such as court proceedings and plea bargains. While we understand that everyone wants their day in court, this is just not always possible. We do pledge that we will keep in contact with you as to the court schedule and when your presence is required. Keep in mind that the courtroom is public and you may be present at any stage of the proceeding even if your presence is not required, subject to certain limitations.