The courts


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A beginning reporter's guide to how the criminal courts work. Thanks to Melvin Mencher's New Reporting and Writing, 12th edition.

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The courts

  1. 1. Justice for all? A beginning reporter’s guide to the courts Source: Melvin Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing
  2. 2. Types of courts • Reporters may cover civil or criminal cases. • Civil courts handle lawsuits, such as recovery for property damages, personal injury and breach of contract. • Civil courts can also issue orders compelling individuals, organizations and government bodies to refrain from action, i.e. preliminary injunctions.
  3. 3. Criminal Courts • Most new police and court reporters will quickly be faced with covering the criminal court process. • This process kicks in after arrest and consists of pre-trial and trial periods. • The pretrial period has four phases: Arraignment, preliminary hearing, grand jury action and jury selection.
  4. 4. Arraignment • Arraignment: The defendant is told what he/she is charged with, counseled about having the right to an attorney and offered the opportunity to enter a plea. • A prosecutor may, at this point, decide to reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor. If that happens, the case can often be wrapped up right there.
  5. 5. Arraignment/Preliminary Hearing • If the defendant pleads guilty to a felony, the case is referred to a higher court. • If the defendant pleads not-guilty to a felony, the case is referred to the appropriate court for a preliminary hearing. • If the defendant waives his right to a preliminary hearing, the case goes to a grand jury. Felonies are handled by district, superior or circuit courts (name depends on the state).
  6. 6. Preliminary Hearing • This is where a judge decides if there is reasonable grounds, or probable cause, to send the case to a grand jury. • The defendant may seek to have the charges reduced through plea bargaining. For lesser charges, the prosecutor will often agree. • For more serious charges or if the defendant has a prior record of serious crime, the case will likely go to a grand jury.
  7. 7. Grand Jury • In half the states, criminal defendants are brought to trial via a grand jury. If a grand jury, made up (usually) of 23 citizens, decides there is enough evidence to move forward, it issues an indictment, also called a true bill. • If not, the grand jury issues a no bill. • A grand jury hears only the state’s (or prosecution’s) evidence. The prosecutor can move forward with charges even if a no bill is issued.
  8. 8. Alternatives to Grand Jury • In 20 states the prosecutor files a charge called an information A judge hears witness testimony at a preliminary hearing and then decides if there is cause for a trial. • In a few states, a prosecutor files affidavits to support the charge. A judge then decides whether to move forward with a trial. • Which system does Texas have?
  9. 9. Rearraignment, Plea bargain, • At rearraignment, the proceeding that comes after indictment. A judge empowered to hear felony cases presides. If the defendant pleads not guilty, trial date and bail are set. • Defendants may continue to plea bargain. In NYC, three-fourths of all murder arrests are plea bargained. In many cities, nine out of 10 criminal cases result in a plea bargain. Why?
  10. 10. Pre-trial motions • Motion to quash the indictment: Challenges the legality of the indictment. • Motion for a bill of particulars: Asks for more detail about the charges. • Motion to suppress evidence: May argue that it was obtained illegally or improperly. • Motion for change of venue: Argues that the defendant cannot receive a fair trial in the city or judicial area where the crime took place.