Persons charged with a Felony in Virginia will go through a certain process in the courts. Not all of the courts in Virginia do things exactly alike, but some of the events are required by law and are present in every court.
Felonies in Virginia are tried in the Circuit Court. However these charges often start with an arrest or summons in the District Courts, either General District Court or Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.
Process in the district court begins with the arrest or summons. If a person is arrested, they will be brought before a magistrate to decide if they an be released on bond pending trial. If they are not, then they will see a judge in the morning, often by video, to discuss bond.
The next step is arraignment. If a person is held in jail, their arraignment will usually take place the first time they see the judge. Otherwise they will have to appear in the court room for arraignment. At the District Court arraignment a criminal defendant will be asked whether they are going to hire a lawyer or if they want to have a court appointed lawyer represent th em (if they qualify financially). At the arraignment a date for preliminary hearing will be set.
The preliminary hearing is a hearing where the District Court judge must determine if their is probable cause for the case to be certified to the Grand Jury. The prosecutor, or Commonwealth’s Attorney has to put on some of their evidence to establish probable cause that the defendant committed the crime for which he is charged. The Defendant does not have to put on ay evidence, and usually doesn’t at this stage, since it is the Commonwealth who has to prove probable cause. The Defendant can also waive their preliminary hearing, if they think it is advisable to do so. If the Judge finds probable cause, he or she will certify the case to the Grand Jury.
The Grand Jury
The Grand Jury meets every month or so to issue indictments. It consists of citizens who serve as grand jurors for a period of a few months. They hear testimony from police and argument from the prosecutor, or Commonwealth’s Attorney, and they issue indictments.
An indictment can be issued by the Grand Jury either from a case that was certified by a District Court judge or by what is called Direct Indictment by the Commonwealth’s Attorney. A person who is Direct Indicted does not go through any of the process in the District Court. A Capias is issued and the person is contacted and told to appear in the Circuit Court on Term Day.
On Term Day the accused appears in person in Court and sets a date for arraignment. The Term Day appearance is very brief, but there can be many recently indicted people present on each Term Day, which is usually held once per month or so.
Circuit Court Arraignment
At every hearing in the Circuit Court for felony cases there is a court reporter present to make a record of each case. At the Circuit Court Arraignment, the Judge explains all Trial Rights in Virginia, and this is recorded by the court reporter to make the record in the case.
After the Judge gives an explanation of each of Trial Rights in Virginia, each person is called up separately to be arraigned. Each person has to state on the record the following:
- Whether they plead guilty or not guilty to the charge(s). At this stage everyone enters pleas of not guilty;
- Whether they want to be tried by a jury or a judge. The Commonwealth’s Attorney or the Judge can also choose a jury trial instead of a judge trial (bench trial). It is common wisdom that juries are less likely to convict a person, but if they do convict their punishments are often harsher than a judge would give;
- Whether the person understands what the Commonwealth has to prove before he can be found guilty;
- Whether the person understands the potential range of punishment for each charge.
After this information is given, the Judge will set a date for trial.
Felony Trials in Virginia
If the trial is by jury, the jury must first be chosen and then empaneled. After that Jury and Judge trials are very similar. The Commonwealth’s Attorney goes first, as they have the burden of proof to prove the person guilty. They call witnesses and present evidence such as pictures, items, weapons, laboratory reports and trial aids. After the Commonwealth is finished putting on evidence the Defense Lawyer may make a motion to try to get some or all of the charges dismissed, by arguing that the Commonwealth has not proven it’s case against the person. If there are charges that remain after this, the Defense Lawyer then puts on witnesses and presents his evidence. After the Defense is finished, the Commonwealth has the opportunity to present rebuttal evidence, and may call witnesses to the stand and present other evidence again. Once both parties are finished presenting evidence, the attorneys argue the facts that were presented, which facts the judge or jury should believe, and how those facts apply to the law. After arguments are made by both sides the judge or jury will render a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Sometimes the jury can not reach a verdict, and this hung jury results in a mistrial. After a mistrial the Commonwealth’s Attorney can try the case again with a different jury.
If the person is found not guilty of all charges, then the cases are over. If they are found guilty of any charge(s), then in the case of a jury trial a sentencing hearing is held, usually immediately. After the sentencing hearing in from of the jury the jury will deliberate and fix a punishment for the conviction.
If the trial was held by a judge without a jury, the case would instead be set for a sentencing hearing. This sentencing hearing is set for the jury trials also, but the jury does not need to be present for it. The judge orders a pretrial report, or background examination of the convicted person that includes sentencing guidelines. At the sentencing hearing both sides may once again put on evidence that relates to sentencing (although the Commonwealth is limited in the evidence they can put on), and the judge pronounces the sentence.