In recent years, many have the idea that criminal trials take a long time due to the high publicity of some cases that seem to have taken forever to be decided. However, most criminal trials do not take nearly as long as the popular media trials would seem to make you think. Usually the entire process from arrest to sentencing takes less than a couple of years to complete.
The first part of any trial process is the arrest phase. This begins the trial process. The arrest phase can occur at anytime within the statue of limitations for a criminal act. This means that as long as the statute of limitations is still in effect this phase of the process can occur whether it has been a few weeks or several years.
The next phase of the trial process is the arraignment phase. This portion of the process usually occurs with the defendant being brought before a judge for a formal hearing informing the defendant of the specific charges being brought against them. This part of the process usually occurs within 48 hours of a defendant's arrest in most jurisdictions. During the arraignment hearing, the judge may also decide whether to release the defendant to return for trial in the case of a misdemeanor charge or may choose to hold the defendant in the local correctional facility in the case of a felony charge. If not, there may be a detention hearing that is held later to determine if the defendant needs to be held or released.
In the case of a felony charge, the next phase of the trial is the preliminary hearing phase. This part of the trial process is where the prosecutor shows his or her evidence as to why the court needs to proceed with a trial. The defendant's attorney has the chance to cross-examine any witnesses and to see what exactly the evidence is that the prosecutor is going to use against his or her client. Some prosecutors however will choose to not conduct a preliminary hearing and will move straight into the Grand Jury phase of a felony trial. They may choose this to protect their witnesses and evidence so that this can be brought out in front of the Grand Jury. The preliminary hearing phase of the trial usually takes place 5-6 days after an arraignment.
In the case of a misdemeanor charge, the next phase of the trial is the motions and hearings phase. This usually takes about 3 months to occur but can last as long as 2 years. During this phase evidence issues are settled and investigations are conducted to determine the allowance or suppression of witnesses. Other motions may be attempted in an effort to get the case dismissed on the grounds that a speedy trial is not being conducted. Overall the motions and hearings have the possibility to delay a case for a good amount of time.
The next phase of a felony case is the Grand Jury phase. In this phase a group of 16-23 citizens meet to hear the evidence presented by the prosecutor to decide if there is strong enough evidence to support an indictment. Usually the Grand Jury is a part of the prosecutor's office and as such normally hears only one side of the case. The side that they hear is the prosecutor's. The defendant has the right to testify before the Grand Jury and the defense lawyer may get permission for other witnesses to also testify. If things go in the favor of the defendant the Grand Jury may issue an indictment and the trial is over. This phase usually occurs within 6 days of the arraignment if the defendant has not waived this or if this part of the process has not been extended due to issues brought out in earlier parts of the trial.
In a misdemeanor case, the next phase after the motions and hearings is to move on into the trial phase. This phase is where the case is argued by the prosecutor and the defendant's attorney in front of a jury and the case is decided in favor of the prosecution or the defense. This portion of the process usually takes about a total of 4 days to 2 weeks. In extremely difficult cases it may take a few months.
In a felony case, the Arraignment on Indictment occurs following the Grand Jury phase. This portion of the trial process is similar to the original arraignment but the charges explained will be those that the Grand Jury has issued the indictment for. This portion of the trial usually happens within about 48 hours after the indictment is issued by the Grand Jury.
The next part of the process for a felony case is to move to the motions and hearings phase where the case has evidence, witness, and Constitutional rights issues debated and settled. This part of the trial process can take anywhere from 3 months to a couple of years. Usually though the process is finished in a matter of a few months.
Following this, the felony case moves into the trial phase. This phase of the trial process usually takes from 4 days to 2 weeks. However extremely difficult and complicated cases can take several months. This is where the jury decides the case based on the prosecutor's and defendant's attorney's arguments. Once this is done the case will move forward.
The next phase in both felony and misdemeanor cases is the Pre-Sentencing Investigation phase. This part of the trial process usually takes 1 to 12 months after the conviction to be completed. It can be delayed by up to a year should the judge decide to place the defendant on probation before sentencing. During this time, the evidence is examined and investigated to determine all of the details of the crime and its impact on the victims. Once this has been completed, the trial process moves into the sentencing phase.
The sentencing phase is the final part of the trial process. This usually occurs between 1 and 12 months after conviction. The sentencing is carried out before a judge and then the defendant is notified of the sentence that they are facing. Once this phase has finished the trial process is over unless appeals are filed for higher courts to hear the case.
In all, most cases are finished in less than a couple of years. On the federal side, the defendant is assured that their trial phase should occur within 70 days due to the Speedy Trial Act. An attorney will discuss with the defendant the timing of the case and will explain any delays that may occur. As seen throughout the explanation of this trial process though, all but the most complicated of cases are usually decided and completed in a relatively short matter of time.