A felony is any offense punishable by more than 364 days in county jail or (only in the case of special circumstance murder) by death.
As with misdemeanors, a felony prosecution begins when a police report is presented to the District Attorney’s Office, which then decides to file felony charges against a defendant.
After a defendant has been charged with a felony, the first step in the criminal court process is called an arraignment. Usually, this is the first time the defendant appears in court. He is informed of the charges, and is offered legal representation if he cannot afford to hire a private attorney. The defendant then enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. Most often, this is also the time when the defendant has his or her first contact with the Public Defender’s Office.
The attorney who handles arraignments in that particular court will discuss the case briefly with the defendant. Ordinarily, the Deputy Public Defender will enter a plea of “not guilty” on behalf of the client. (If a case is particularly complex or unusual, a plea might not be entered at the first appearance, but might be entered at a later date in order to allow the attorney time to gather more information about the charges.) If a “not guilty” plea is entered at this first appearance, the case will then be scheduled for a “preliminary hearing” which is usually set no later than 10 court days after the arraignment.
The preliminary hearing is a court proceeding at which the District Attorney’s Office must present enough evidence to convince a judge that there is evidence that a specific crime has been committed — and that the accused is the person who committed the crime.
This hearing is in front of a judge, not a jury. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to weed out charges unsupported by the evidence. The prosecution may use police officers to present the statements of victims and witnesses to demonstrate to the judge that there is enough evidence to justify sending the case to a court for trial. At this hearing, the prosecution’s case does not have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the amount of evidence required at these hearings is low, the vast majority of cases are not dismissed by the judge after the preliminary hearing.
If the defendant’s case was not dismissed at the preliminary hearing, the case then moves to a trial court where the defendant is once again arraigned. However, this time a trial date is set. Generally speaking, the trial is set to occur within 60 days from the date of this new arraignment, although felony cases frequently require more time so that the defense can conduct a complete, independent investigation, interview witnesses, consult with expert witnesses, and prepare to challenge the evidence presented by the District Attorney.
The defense attorney may also make various motions in order to get the case dismissed on legal grounds, such as a motion to get evidence thrown out of court because the police acted improperly when seizing this evidence, or a motion to dismiss because the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing was not strong enough to warrant a trial. The defense might also make motions to force the District Attorney or the police to disclose evidence, which could prove that the client is not guilty of the charge.
While the case is ongoing, the defendant may decide he or she does not want to go to trial but wants to settle the matter. Just as often, a District Attorney might offer the defendant a case settlement, referred to as a “plea bargain,” to plead guilty to a less serious charge or agree to ask for reduced incarceration time at sentencing.
Settlement may occur at any time, from the first court appearance at the initial arraignment up to, and even during, trial. Case settlement usually involves the defendant pleading “guilty” or ‘no contest” for an agreed sentence or to an agreed-upon charge.
If the case does not settle, an adult criminal defendant has the right to a trial by jury. A trial is where 12 jurors, listen to all the evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense and decide whether the prosecution has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge’s job at a jury trial is to make sure that both the prosecution and the defense adhere to all the rules of evidence when presenting their case to the jury.
All 12 jurors must agree in order to either convict or acquit a defendant. If the jury cannot agree, a “mistrial” will be declared by the court, and the case may either be tried again before a different jury, dismissed or a case settlement may be agreed by the prosecution and the defense.
If a defendant is found guilty, the judge will then impose a sentence. The possible range of sentence, which is set by various laws, may range from no jail and probation, to imprisonment in the state prison. Sentencing can be a very complex process, depending on the severity of the crime for which the defendant has just been convicted.
In the most serious of cases, referred to as special circumstance murder prosecutions, the defendant faces a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty. If a defendant has been convicted of such an offense, then there is a separate proceeding, called a penalty phase, at which both sides present evidence either in aggravation or mitigation of penalty. The jury determines the appropriate penalty. If the jury determines that the defendant should be executed, the judge still has the power to overrule that determination and to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, if the jury agrees that life imprisonment is the appropriate punishment, the judge does not have the power to impose the death penalty.
Defendants who have been convicted after a trial have the right to appeal their conviction. This process is started by the trial attorney who, upon request of the client, will file a notice of appeal in the trial court within 60 days of the imposition of sentence. A lawyer who specializes in appeals will then be appointed by the Court of Appeal to represent the defendant on appeal.