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Criminal Court Process

Criminal Court Process

This outlines the course of a typical felony criminal case through the court system. While you as the victim or witness are not involved in every step of the court process, this summary can help you better understand the criminal justice system and your role in a case.


An arraignment is the initial court proceeding where the defendant appears before a judge, in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, for the first time following their arrest. The purpose of the arraignment is to inform the defendant of the charge(s) against them, their right to be represented by an attorney and their right to request an adjournment to obtain an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint a defense attorney, commonly known as a public defender, to represent them.  

At the arraignment, the defendant, or their attorney on their behalf, must enter a plea, which is usually “not guilty.” 

If the charge is a qualifying offense, the judge may impose monetary bail to ensure the defendant returns to court or remand the defendant in pre-trial confinement. If the defendant does not have the money to pay bail, they will be held in pre-trial confinement. 

No testimony or evidence is heard at the arraignment. The prosecutor (Assistant District Attorney), who represents the People of the State of New York, can request that the judge issue a temporary order of protection on behalf of the victim(s) or witness(es). A next court date is scheduled, which is the felony hearing. 

Felony Hearing (Preliminary Hearing)

At the felony hearing, the prosecutor must establish reasonable cause that a crime occurred and present testimony that the defendant committed the crime. The victim and/or witness must be present to testify during this proceeding. The defendant and their defense attorney are present during the proceeding. Defense counsel may cross-examine you after the prosecutor questions you about the crime. After hearing the testimony, the judge makes one of the following decisions:

  • Reasonable cause exists and the case can be presented to the Grand Jury
  • Reasonable cause exists, but the elements of a felony charge do not, then the charge(s) may be reduced 
  • Further proceedings will take place in the local criminal court
  • Reasonable cause does not exist and charge(s) will be dismissed

For various legal reasons, the felony hearing may be adjourned and the case will be presented to the Grand Jury. 

Grand Jury Proceeding

A Grand Jury consists of 23 empaneled citizens of Erie County who decide if the District Attorney’s Office has enough evidence to pursue felony charge against the accused. 

It is a secret proceeding, which is not open to the public. When a victim or witness is called to testify before the Grand Jury, only the prosecutor, jurors and a court stenographer are present. No judges, defendants or defense attorneys are present during the proceeding. 

The purpose of the Grand Jury is to listen to information concerning felony crimes and to decide, by a vote, that:

  • The evidence presented is sufficient, the charge(s) against the defendant are correct and the case should be held for trial. The vote results in a "true bill" and an indictment is issued against the defendant.
  • The evidence presented is not sufficient for a felony charge and the case will return to the city, town or village court for prosecution as a misdemeanor.
  • The evidence presented is not sufficient for any further court action and the felony charge is dismissed. This vote is a "no bill." When the case is dismissed, it is automatically sealed by operation of law.

After testifying before the Grand Jury, it may be a few days or weeks before the victim or witness is informed of the decision. The Grand Jury is "seated" for a term of approximately one month and will report out all the votes on all the cases heard. The Assistant District Attorney will inform you of when you may expect to hear the results.

After an indictment is filed against the defendant, an arraignment will be scheduled before a judge in Erie County Court or State Supreme Court. 

Pre-Trial Hearings and Motions

After the defendant is arraigned on the indictment, it will take several months for the case to proceed to trial. During this time, the defendant may file a motion to challenge the legality of the evidence against him. A hearing may be held, for example, on the way evidence was obtained by the police or the manner in which the defendant was identified.

If the victim or witness is needed for any pre-trial hearings, the Assistant District Attorney will make the notification and explain what will happen (example: you may be asked about a photo line-up where you identified the defendant) during the proceeding.

A case may reach a final disposition before a trial is held. This can be arrived at in two ways:

  • Guilty Plea: The defendant admits to committing the crimes charged within the indictment. The defendant may decide to plead guilty, as charged, to due to the strength of the evidence against him. A guilty plea is a conviction. 
  • Plea Agreement: More often, the defendant and his defense counsel along with the Assistant District Attorney and judge agree that the defendant may enter a guilty plea to a charge (or charges) or a lesser offense. Also known as a “plea bargain” or “plea deal,” these agreements serve a legitimate purpose in the criminal justice system, which include ensuring a conviction without requiring the victim/witness to testify at trial. The prosecutor will explain the reasons involved in any plea negotiation if this should occur in a case where you are the victim. 


If you are a victim or a witness, your testimony will be required at trial. The prosecutor will meet with you beforehand to prepare and discuss what is expected to occur during the trial. The courtroom will be open to the public and the defendant is present during the trial. 

The defendant has the right to ask for a verdict to be decided by a jury (jury trial) or a judge (bench or non-jury trial). At the end of the trial, the jury or judge will either:

  • Find a verdict of guilty on all or some of the charges
  • Find a verdict of not guilty on all of the charges (acquittal)
  • In a jury trial, failure to reach a unanimous decision on a verdict (hung jury), a mistrial is declared and the case may be retried
  • The judge declares a mistrial for some legal reason and the case may be retried

A trial begins with opening statements by the prosecutor and the defense attorney, which outlines the case for the jury or judge. 

Next, prosecution witnesses are called to testify followed by the defense witnesses. As the victim or witness of a crime, you will be a prosecution witness (witness for the People). After the Assistant District Attorney questions you (on direct examination), the defense attorney will question you (cross examination). When you testify, other witnesses typically will not be allowed in the courtroom. After you have finished giving testimony, you are not required to stay through the end of the trial. You will be notified by the Assistant DA when a verdict is rendered.

At the conclusion of witness testimony, closing statements are given by the prosecution and defense counsel. If it is a jury trial, the judge will instruct the jury on the charges in the case before deliberations can begin. During deliberations, the jury must reach a unanimous decision on each charge against the defendant – either a verdict of guilty or not guilty. 


Following a conviction at trial or plea, the judge is responsible for sentencing the defendant. 

A sentencing date is scheduled to occur several weeks after the date of the conviction, which allows the Department of Probation to issue a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report to the court. The report includes an interview with the crime victim. You may be asked about the impact of the crime on your life (physical, financial, emotional, mental) and your opinion on the appropriate sentence. The report also includes information on the defendant's past criminal record.

The prosecutor and the victim advocate collect victim impact statements, which are also submitted the court prior to sentencing. You can write directly to the judge about your feelings on the case as a victim or witness. 

The judge reviews the PSI report and victim impact statements ahead of the sentencing proceeding

At the sentencing date, the defendant must be present. You may attend, as the matter is held in open court, and can request to speak during the proceeding. If you decide not to attend, the Assistant DA will inform you of the sentence.

The range of sentences that may be imposed is determined by New York State Criminal Procedure Law. Some felony offenses carry a mandatory prison sentence. While prosecutors can request that the court impose a particular sentence within the guidelines of the law, the judge is ultimately responsible for the decision.