Trials are a visible representative of the criminal justice process. Trials often command public attention. Few criminal cases actually make it to trial.
Prior to trial, a suspect is arrested either with or without a warrant. Afterward, they are placed in police lockup. A decision is made whether to grant the suspect bail. The purpose of bail is to ensure that a suspect appears for court hearings. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail. Preventive detention may be used when the accused presents a flight risk or a public safety threat. A suspect may post bail through use of an unsecured bond, cash deposit, property bond, bail bondsman, or percentage deposit. At an initial appearance, a judge considers probable cause, reviews the charges, and addresses attorney representation and bail. At a preliminary hearing, the defendant is informed of charges and the state begins presenting its evidence.
The grand jury determines probable cause for trial. The Fifth Amendment requires a grand jury for federal felony cases. Grand jury hearings are private, and jury members are sworn to lifelong secrecy. Grand juries issue true bills for probable cause findings, and no true bills for findings of no probable cause.
At arraignment, defendants are informed of charges and due process rights. A defendant may enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, nolo contendere, guilty but mentally ill, not guilty by reason of insanity, or an Alford plea. Plea bargaining may be utilized as part of a legal strategy, due to caseloads, and because it allows all parties to win something.
Judges may order pre-sentence investigation reports, which contain information about the defendant's work history, education, family, and prior criminal history. Judges rule on pretrial motions, including dismissal of charges, change of venue, suppression of evidence, discovery, continuances, and others.
A defendant may elect to have a jury or bench trial. Most felony trials are by jury. In jury selection, potential jurors are questioned and biased jurors are eliminated through strikes for cause or peremptory challenges. Prosecuting attorneys deliver opening arguments first, and each attorney gives an overview of their case. The prosecution calls witnesses first. Direct examination is conducted by the party calling the witness. The opposing side questions the witness on cross-examination. There is controversy about the use of scientific analysis by expert witnesses. To admit scientific evidence, its validity must be established through the Daubert criteria.
In closing arguments, each side mentions inconsistencies in the opposition's case. The judge then reads the jury charge. The judge determines whether the jury should be sequestered. The jury elects a foreperson and reaches a verdict. The judge delivers the verdict and sets a sentencing date. The theories of sentencing are retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. Sentencing is done by the judge or jury, depending on the type of case. Cases may be appealed to a higher court based upon errors of law, though the right of appeal only includes an examination of the trial record. Few cases are appealed.