What are the Steps in a Criminal Trial?

What are the Steps in a Criminal Trial?

Criminal cases do not go straight to trial. They go through a lengthy series of steps which must be completed before the courts can move on to the trial phase.

Here’s what the process looks like after you’ve been arrested and charged. Note that you can opt to take a plea, if one is offered, at any point before the trial begins.


This is a hearing where the charges are formally read out to you before the court. You have the option at this stage to plead guilty or not guilty.

If you plead guilty, the process halts right here. The judge can, in some circumstances, move straight to sentencing. If you plead not guilty, the process continues to the next step.

The next step happens in the same court proceeding, where the judge moves on to consider bail. The judge decides whether to set bail or not, and if bail is set, how much. In most cases, if you are charged with a non-violent crime, or a misdemeanor as of January 2020, you will be released on your own recognizance. Some judges are already releasing non-violent offenders without bail.

If you are charged with a more serious crime, your defense lawyer will argue for you to be released on your own recognizance, which means you can go home, but must show up for court on any future court dates. The prosecution will often argue for the highest bail they can get, because they know they’re at an advantage if you remain in jail until your trial.

Whether bail is set or not set, the process moves on.

See also: Arraignment in New York: What to Expect.


When an individual is charged with a felony, the next step is often the Grand Jury presentation.

The Grand Jury consists of 16 to 23 members of the community who are sworn to secrecy. They have one job: to determine if the prosecution has enough evidence to try your case.

If they determine the prosecution does not have enough evidence, they dismiss the charges and the process ends. If they do find there is enough evidence, they issue an indictment, which is a formal accusation.

It’s rare for Grand Juries to rule in the defendant’s favor. This is because the defense usually only gets to bring one optional witness: you. The prosecution must allow you to testify in your own defense if you want to. If you waive this right, neither you nor your lawyer will be present when the Grand Jury convenes.

This may be one of the only steps in the process where, in certain circumstances, it could be a good idea to put you on the stand. It’s something of a hail Mary pass. But it can backfire: things you say before the Grand Jury can be used against you at trial.

The Grand Jury may hear from other defense witnesses if a request is made either verbally or in writing – but they can decline any defense witness they want.

Meanwhile, the prosecution can parade out any witness they want, and the Grand Jury must hear from all of them. Because remember, the only thing at issue here is whether the prosecution has enough evidence to proceed.

If a Grand Jury does in fact indict, there will be  a second arraignment.

See also: Can You Really Get My Charges Dismissed?


At this point,  the judge will review the Grand Jury minutes to make sure they are legally sufficient.  In addition, motions will be filed by both sides and the defense will begin to receive discovery, which may include medical records, police reports, 911 calls, etc.

This is the time when your attorney will be buckling down to find evidence and witnesses for the defense, and to look for holes in the prosecution’s case.

See also: Falsely Accused? Know Your Options.


Here, the prosecution and defense present all their evidence before a “petit jury,” which is a jury of 12 individuals who will return a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Criminal trials can take several days, or even weeks or months.

If the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict, you get to go home. If you’re found guilty, the next step in the process will be a sentencing hearing, where your lawyer will be arguing for the lightest sentence you can get.

For many defendants, the trial will be the final step, but not always. There are ways to challenge the conviction, and there is always the chance of obtaining an appeal or some other form of post-conviction relief.

See also: What is a 440 Motion?

Final Notes

For some defendants, allowing the process to proceed all the way to trial can be the wrong move. Sometimes, defendants with overwhelmingly strong cases against them will receive the harshest penalties allowed by the court.

Having an attorney who will give you an honest assessment of your situation is paramount. You will need to make some tough decisions about whether to halt the process yourself, with a plea bargain, or to proceed to trial. A plea bargain eliminates the possibility of being found not guilty after trial, but avoids a roll of the dice when the odds are against you.

See also: Should  You Accept? The Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining.

This is not true for all defendants. While our system tends to rely on plea bargains to an excessive degree, knowing which strategy to launch is one of the reasons why having an experienced, criminal lawyer by your side is so paramount. If you’re in trouble, don’t hesitate. Contact the Law Offices of Julie Rendelman today to get the help you need.