Questions About the Judicial Process

How does my case get to your office for prosecution?
Law enforcement agencies present cases to the District Attorney’s Office for what is called “intake” before a complaint is filed. The law enforcement agency investigating your case will send a case file to the District Attorney’s Office when its investigation is complete. 
 
What do you mean when you say that a case is in intake?
A case is reviewed by an assistant district attorney who decides whether there is enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, and that the person who is accused actually committed the offense. Other questions will also be explored at the time. Although some cases are refused for prosecution at this stage, most are approved for the next step in the process just as they are received from law enforcement. A thorough intake process ensures that fewer criminals escape justice on legal technicalities later in the process.
 
How is a case processed in the District Attorney’s Office?
At intake our secretary prepares a file of the case. The file contains information provided by the law enforcement agency investigating the case, as well as other information developed by our staff. After the file is assembled, it will be assigned to an assistant district attorney. After review, if the attorney approves the case, felony cases will be sent for review by a grand jury for consideration. Misdemeanor cases do not require grand jury review, but may be directly filed with a court by our office for prosecution, or may be refused for prosecution because the evidence is insufficient.
 
What is a complaint?
A complaint is a legal document that charges a specific person with the violation of a criminal law. It must be sworn to by someone who knows the facts of the crime, either by direct knowledge or through investigation. When a complaint is filed, it begins the process that will take the case through the criminal justice system.
Questions About the Judicial Process 
 
What is an indictment?
An indictment is the written statement of a grand jury accusing a person of some act or omission which by law is declared to be an offense.
 
What is Grand Jury?
Texas law requires action by a grand jury before a felony case can be filed in a district court. A grand jury is a body of twelve citizens, appointed by a judge to hear evidence in felony cases brought before them by the District Attorney’s Office. If the grand jurors determine that a case has enough evidence to go forward in the system, they return a “true bill of indictment”. If the do not find enough evidence they will issue “no bill”, which means the grand jury declines to file a charge. Grand jury proceedings are not open to the public, and witnesses take an oath of secrecy before testifying. The District Attorney presents cases to the grand jury and prepares indictments, but the actual deliberations on cases are secret and only the grand jurors are present when voting takes place. It is important to remember that a grand jury is not deciding whether a criminal defendant is “guilty” or “not guilty” and is not deciding what punishment is given. The grand jury decides if there is a basic level of evidence sufficient for the case to move forward in the system, allowing the case to be filed in a district court.
 
What is an arraignment?
After a case has been considered by a grand jury and an indictment returned, the case will be scheduled for an arraignment, also sometime called the “first setting”. This hearing will be approximately two weeks or more after the indictment. The arraignment is a procedural hearing wherein the defendant hears the formal charge against him/her when the district judge reads a copy of the indictment. The defendant will typically enter a plea of not guilty at the conclusion of the arraignment and the defendant will be set for a plea conference in about four weeks or more.  
 
What is a plea conference?
In most cases the assistant district attorney assigned to your case will meet once or more with the defendant and his lawyer to discuss resolution of the case. These meetings are called “plea conferences”, and are required by most courts. Prior to a plea conference our office will provide the defendant with “discovery”, which is a copy of the police report and evidence in the case.
The purpose of the plea conference is ultimately to seek a plea agreement that is acceptable to all parties, including you as a victim. Every case is different, so you should speak to the assistant district attorney handling your case about whether a plea agreement will be sought in your case. (See “What is a plea agreement “below).
 
What happens at trial?
In a trial the assistant district attorney presents the case for the State. His or her job is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime with which he/she has been charged. The defendant may present his/her side of the case or present no case at all. The jury (if one is impaneled) or the judge must decide whether the State’s case has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant is found guilty the law provides for a second stage at trial. During this stage the defendant’s punishment will be set within a range which is set by law. The defendant is permitted to determine in advance if he/she wants the judge or jury to set punishment.
 
What is my role at trial?
As a victim of crime you are a witness for the State and have an important part in the trial. You will provide the jury or judge with your version of the facts of the case. Your appearance, manner, and the truthfulness of your testimony on the witness stand are all factors that will be considered in deciding the case. You will be questioned by the prosecution and by the attorney for the defense upon cross-examination. A pre-trial conference may be scheduled with witnesses and the assistant district attorney handling the case prior to the trial date. 
 
How are witnesses called for court?
All witnesses are notified for court by subpoena about when, where, and what time to appear and what, if anything, to bring with them to court. An instruction letter is included with the subpoena, directing witnesses to call the secretary in the court of their case for more information on the date and time of their testimony. A subpoena is your notice to ‘ your employer and/or school for your absence. Employers and school officials should be made aware that witnesses are not allowed to leave the courthouse unless released by the judge for the evening, from the trial completely, or the prosecution gives them specific instructions of a time of return. A subpoena is in effect for the duration of the trial or hearing or your are released by the judge.
 
What should I wear to court?
Please dress neatly and conservatively. A good rule of thumb is to wear something you would wear to church (slacks, a blouse). We suggest no t-shirts, tank tops, camisoles, or other inappropriate dress, and we suggest that visible tattoos be covered and body piercings removed. Right or wrong, how we dress can have an impact on how jurors view our testimony.
 
What is a plea agreement?
The reality of limited judicial resources and thousands of pending cases means that most cases in the system will be resolved by an agreement between the state and the defense as to what will happen in your case. If an agreement is reached the defendant will agree to plead guilty, and the State will make a recommendation to the judge of a specific punishment, or the punishment range may be “capped” as part of the agreement. The agreement is not binding on the judge. The judge can reject the agreement . If the judge accepts the agreement, the defendant will be sentenced as agreed. If the judge rejects the agreement, negotiation continues, or the case proceeds to trial. The advantages to a plea agreement are that 1) the outcome is certain with the defendant accepting responsibility for the crime, 2) victims do not have to testify in court, 3) the case is resolved more quickly than a trial, and 4) the defendant waives his right to appeal, preventing years of appeals and the possibility of the defendant’s conviction being overturned on a technicality. By law, the decision of whether to enter into a plea agreement with the defendant is made by the District Attorney’s Office. We make this decision taking into consideration your wishes, the strengths and weaknesses of the case, and several other factors. We encourage you to provide your opinion and to ask questions about your case.
 
What if a defense attorney contacts me about the case?
The attorney representing the defendant is entitled to contact you and ask questions to you. You are entitled to speak with him/her, or to decline to speak with him/her. No one may force you to speak with them about a case, unless you are served with a subpoena requiring you to give testimony. If you agree to speak to the defendant’s attorney or his/her representative, that information can be used against the case in court. You are encouraged to ensure you know with whom you are speaking when you are called about a case. In the past, witnesses have unknowingly shared valuable information with representatives of criminal defendants because the witnesses misunderstood who the caller represented. 
 
Why was my case reset before going to trial?
Many cases are set for trial on the same date. Judges usually hear cases in an order based on the age of a case, with older cases given priority. Priority is also given to cases in which the defendant is in jail. Cases may be reset for a number of reasons. Another case may be called for trial instead, witnesses may be unavailable, a necessary party may be sick, or there may be procedural reasons for a delay. We encourage you to be patient, and to stay in touch with our Victims Assistance Coordinators for updates on the status of your case. 
 
Appeals
If the defendant has pled guilty under the terms of a plea agreement, his or her rights of appeal are greatly reduced. If the case goes to trial and the defendant is convicted, every defendant has the right to appeal his/her conviction. The defendant’s first appeal is o ask the judge permission for a new trial within 30 days of the defendant’s conviction. A motion for new trial is made on the defendant’s behalf by a defense attorney, usually the one that defended him/her at trial. This motion will be based on some alleged error made in trial. The judge will either grant or deny the motion. For those defendants sentenced to 10 years in prison or less, the defendant is entitled to a bond during the time when the appeal is pending. If your case is appealed you will be contacted by victim services to discuss the issues. 
 
Parole
Almost every defendant sentenced to prison will become eligible for release at some point before serving the full sentence. Eligibility for parole does not guarantee that a defendant will be granted parole. The decision as to whether a defendant is granted parole is made by a parole board in Austin. As the victim you have the right to be notified of parole hearings and to write letters protesting the early release of the defendant. If you desire to be involved with the parole process, it is important that you file a Victim Impact Statement with the Victim Services Division of the District Attorney’s Office and notify parole officials of your desire to be notified of hearing dates. 
 
What is Allocution?
Allocution is a statement made in court by a victim, close relative of a deceased victim, or guardian of a victim. The statement is made after the defendant is sentenced and allows you to state directly to the defendant how the offense had affected you and your family. The party making the statement to the defendant may not direct questions to the defendant. The court reporter does not transcribe the statement. 
 
What is SAVNS?
Texas SAVNS, State Automated Victim Notification Service, is a free and anonymous telephone service that gives victims of crime information and notification about offender custody status and related court events and cases. To sign up, go to co.grayson.tx.us, find the VINElink , click on Grayson County, and follow the prompts. Complete the information to sign up to be contacted upon the defendant’s release from jail. There is a short lag time between the time the defendant is released and the time you will be called by the system.