Stages of the Court Process
An initial appearance is a hearing before the Judge for the defendant to enter a plea to the charge. The defendant can enter a plea of not guilty, no contest, or guilty. If the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, the case will be scheduled for either a trial or a pre-trial. If the defendant pleads no contest or guilty, the case will normally end and the defendant will be sentenced. If this happens, you have the right to make a victim impact statement, which is a statement letting the court know how this crime has affected you emotionally, physically, and financially. An advocate can assist you in preparing a victim impact statement, and if you cannot attend the initial appearance, an advocate can make statements on your behalf.
If the defendant pleads not guilty, the only things that will be discussed at the initial appearance are the issue of bond and any pre-trial orders that may be requested by you, the victim of the crime. Bond is money the defendant has to give the court to be let out of jail, if the defendant was arrested rather than summoned into court. Pre-trial orders may include conditions of bond controlling the behavior of the defendant upon release, protection orders and no-contact orders, ordering the defendant not to contact you while the case is pending. The court may release the offender on a “personal recognizance bond” which is the defendant’s promise to appear and comply with the conditions of bond.
If you would like a Victim Impact Statement read at the initial appearance, but do not wish to attend, you MUST contact the Victim Assistance Program PRIOR to the court date. In Chardon Municipal Court the Prosecutor will pursue any criminal proceedings; therefore, as the victim or witness of a crime, you do not have to obtain an attorney for representation in a criminal case.
A pre-trial is a meeting between the Prosecuting Attorney and the Defendant or the Defendant’s Attorney. The purpose of a pre-trial is to discuss the case and decide whether to schedule it for a trial or to agree to settle the case without a trial. A pre-trial is not in the courtroom or before the Judge. You will meet with your Advocate and/or the Prosecutor to discuss your feelings and expectations for the case. You will probably not be meeting with the defendant at any time during the pre-trial.
During this meeting, the criminal case is discussed along with the possibility of a plea agreement. The Prosecutor represents the government (state, county or municipality) and does not represent you. However your input is very important. He will consider your thoughts about the charge(s) and sentence. You have the right as a victim of crime to have your input considered by the Prosecutor. Your attendance and/or input is necessary at the pre-trial if you wish to exercise this right. If you cannot attend the pre-trial, you can discuss the case with your Advocate before the scheduled date, and she will participate in the pre-trial on your behalf. If your Advocate has not spoken with you before or during the pre-trial, she will not be able to make a recommendation to the Prosecutor regarding the criminal case. Ultimately, it is the Prosecutor’s decision to reduce, dismiss or to prosecute the charge as it was filed.
If a plea agreement is reached, the case(s) may proceed to sentencing the same day. If we have not had contact with you prior to the pre-trial the case may be concluded immediately after the pre-trial, without input from you.
If the case cannot be resolved, the case will proceed with a trial. The Prosecutor and your Advocate will be able to prepare you for the trial on the day you are scheduled to appear. If you feel that additional preparation is needed, please contact your Advocate to schedule a time to meet with us prior to the trial date.
Keep in mind that the defendant can change his/her plea to guilty at any time, including just before the trial is to begin. However, you must be prepared to testify if the trial goes forward as scheduled. If the defendant changes his/her mind at the last minute, we will discuss the possibility of preparing a victim impact statement.
Helpful Tips for Trial Preparation
Testifying in court can be very frightening and uncomfortable. You will suffer a certain amount of anxiety because, for you, it is not an everyday experience. These are some helpful hints when preparing to testify in court.
- Refresh your memory. Picture the scene, the distances between things, and the chain of events leading up to the crime. If you gave a written statement, ask to review it.
- Always tell the truth.
- Never forget that you are under oath.
- Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer, say that you don’t know. If you don’t remember, say that you don’t remember. Sometimes a lot of time passes between the day of the incident and the trial. It is understandable if you don’t remember all of the details. Just do the best you can to remember the incident, and relay only the information that you recall.
- Dress in a neat, respectable manner. Your appearance should not distract the Jury or Judge, or make your testimony less believable. Dress nicely and conservatively if possible. Something that you would wear for a special occasion or to church would be appropriate.
- Don’t lose your temper. If you become confused or angry during your testimony, try to remain calm and answer in a non-hostile manner. A trial is a stressful time for everyone involved. If you feel yourself getting upset or agitated a short break from the court room may be arranged so that you can collect your thoughts and calm down.
- Answer only what is asked. Take your time. Don’t volunteer information, ramble or stray from the question. If a question can be answered with a “yes” or a “no” do so. The attorneys will ask you to explain your answers further if it is necessary.
- Do not anticipate or guess where the attorney’s questioning is going. Answer the question directly, without comment or providing more information than is asked for.
- Speak loudly and clearly. Everything that you say is being recorded by the court reporter or recording system. Do not nod your head. Always answer the question verbally. We understand that it is nerve racking to have to testify, and that you may be scared or nervous. Just take a deep breath and try to relax. Your testimony will be over before you know it.
- Avoid joking and wisecracks. A criminal case is a serious matter. For many people joking and wisecracks are a response when they are scared or nervous. Always remember that you are on the stand to only answer the questions that are asked of you. Jurors may interpret joking comments in various ways. This is why it is very important to remain composed and testify to only the facts of the case.
- Stick to the facts. Do not draw conclusions or state opinions unless you are asked to do so. During a trial, you can only testify to what you witnessed (saw or heard). If the Prosecutor wants you to state your opinion on something, he will ask you to do so. The best way to handle testifying is to testify only to the facts that you witnessed. Often there are parts of an incident that you did not see or hear, or do not remember, and that is okay. You only have to testify to what you witnessed.
- Beware of questions involving time and distance. If you are making an estimate of time or distance, make sure everyone understands that you are only estimating. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. The delay between the incident and the trial may cloud your memory. You may not be able to remember exact times or distances. This is okay. Just try your best to remember what you can. Always remember to make it clear if you are estimating. It is okay to say that you don’t remember or you don’t know.
- Think before speaking. If you don’t understand a question, ask that it be repeated or explained. We understand that you may be nervous or scared about testifying. It is okay to ask for a question to be repeated or explained. If the Prosecutor or Defense Attorney wants you to answer a question, he/she will be happy to explain what he/she is asking.
Take a deep breath. Try to relax. Your testimony will be over before you know it.