The Criminal Justice Process
How Cases are Started
In Tennessee, criminal cases can be initiated one of two ways. Either my a law enforcement officer executing an arrest warrant issued by a magistrate or my a grand jury returning a true bill.
If your case is initiated by warrant, citation, or summons, then your case will begin in General Sessions Court.
If your case is initiated by direct presentment to the Grand Jury and the return of a true bill, then your case will begin in Circuit or Criminal Court.
General Sessions Court
If your case begins in General Sessions Court, you will likely be scheduled for an initial appearance before a General Sessions Judge within a few days of your arrest. The Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure require your case to be heard within fifteen days if you are in jail or thirty days if you are released on bail.
At your initial appearance, the Judge will make sure you understand your rights, make sure you understand your charges, make sure you have an attorney.
You will then be scheduled for a preliminary hearing, where the State will be required to prove that there is probable cause that you have committed a crime.
If the Court finds probable cause, your case will be sent to the Grand Jury for their consideration.
The Grand Jury
The Grand Jury is a group of citizens, who live in the county with jurisdiction, who have been empaneled to determine if there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed if a certain person has committed it. Typically, Defendants do not attend this step of the process and may not even know it is happening. The law requires that the proceedings of the Grand Jury be kept secret, with a few exceptions.
During the consideration of your case, the District Attorney General will present evidence to the Grand Jurors. After the evidence has been presented, everyone except the Grand Jurors will leave the room. The Grand Jury Foreperson will lead the discussion and inform the Court of their decision. If the Grand Jury decides there is not probable cause, they will return a no true bill.
If your case was initiated in General Sessions Court and the Grand Jury believes there is probable cause that you have committed a crime, then they will return a true bill. In this case, it will be referred to as an indictment. If your case was initiated in the Grand Jury, then it will be referred to as a Presentment. When a Presentment is returned, a Judge will issue a Capias or order for your arrest.
Circuit or Criminal Court
After an indictment or presentment is returned in your case, it will start through the Circuit or Criminal Court. In criminal cases, Circuit, Criminal, and Trial Court are in essence the same thing.
At your arraignment in Circuit or Criminal Court, the Judge will read you the indictment or presentment from the Grand Jury. The Judge will also consider your request for an appointed attorney, and if you are indigent appoint an attorney for you. The Court will also set additional court dates and trial date.
After your attorney begins working on your case, they will request discovery from the State. Brady v. Maryland and the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure outline what the State is required to provide to the Defense. Your attorney should discuss this discovery with you, as well as all other information obtained during your investigation.
Following review of your case, your attorney and the District Attorney General will likely have discussions regarding what plea options are available in your case. Because the vast majority of criminal cases settle this is a very important part of the criminal justice process. When considering a plea offer, a defendant must consider the range of punishment for the offenses charged, the possibility of success at trial, whether alternative sentencing is available, and whether a pretrial or judicial diversion is possible.
Either before or after plea negotiations, your attorney may file motions. Motions are simply a document filed with the Court asking him or her to do something. Motions can be used to ask that certain evidence be disallowed due to the violation of a Constitutional Right, these are referred to as motions to suppress. Motions can also be used to ask the Court to rule on evidentiary issued before a trial, these are referred to as motions in limine. Many other motions are possible.
If motion hearings and plea negotiations do not resolve your case, your case will proceed to trial.
The trial of your case can be stressful. It is important to have and attorney who is experienced in jury trials. Many attorneys do not handle jury trials. Bench trials and hearings are much different than trying a case to a jury.
The trial process will start with voir dire or jury selection. During this process, the attorneys will ask questions of the jurors to find out if any of the jurors have prejudged the case or are ineligible to serve as jurors,
Following jury selection, the Court will read the the charging instrument and ask you for your plea. Following a plea of not guilty, the State of Tennessee will make an opening statement. Your attorney will likely make an opening statement at that time.
The State of Tennessee will present their case in chief. They will call witnesses and enter exhibits to attempt to prove their case. As they call each witness, your attorney will have the opportunity to cross examine or question the witnesses about anything relevant to the trial of your case.
When the State finishes their case in chief, your attorney will make a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal. Your attorney will explain to the Court why the Court should dismiss the case against you and point out the flaws in the State's case. If the State has failed to prove that you are guilty beyond ask reasonable doubt, then the case will be dismissed. These motions are rarely granted because the Court is required to consider the evidence in a light most favorable to the state.
The defense then has an opportunity to present its case in chief. The defendant may testify, but has an absolute right not to do so. The defense also has the right to subpoena witnesses and force them to testify even if they do not want to. Following the close of defense proof, the Court will charge the jury or explain to them the law applicable to the case.
After the charge, the State will present a closing argument, followed my a closing argument by the defense, and a second closing my the State of Tennessee. The jury will then retire to deliberate. When they return with your verdict, you will either be found guilty or not guilty. If you are found not guilty, you can never be charged for that particular criminal episode again. If you are found guilty, you will be sentenced at a separate hearing.
Motion for New Trial and Appeal
If you are convicted, the war is not over. You have the right to have your case reviewed by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to ensure that the law was properly applied to your case. In order to increase your chances of success on appeal, your attorney must have filed the proper pretrial motions, made the proper evidentiary objections at trial, and made requests for the correct jury instructions. Also, your attorney must file a motion for new trial within thirty days of sentencing that outlines the issues you plan to raise on appeal. It is important to have an attorney who knows how to handle an appeal from the beginning of your case.