Justice for all?
A beginning reporter’s guide to the
Source: Melvin Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing
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
• Most new police and court reporters will
quickly be faced with covering the criminal
• 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.
• 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.
• 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).
• 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.
• 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
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?
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?
• 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.