Preliminary hearings first step in process

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 20, 2007


The average person, inundated with depictions of the judicial process presented by Hollywood, might perceive the court process as straight-forward, with little more involved than trial and sentencing.

In the real world, not visited by the writers of Law and Order, Matlock or Perry Mason, lawyers and defendants must navigate a number of meetings and hearings as they work toward the inevitable goal of justice.

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From the arrested and bond hearing, there are a number of options available for attorneys to meet witnesses, receive testimony, look at the validity of the charges, try the case and receive a sentence in cases in which they are warranted. The process is longer than a person might expect, with preliminary hearings, grand juries, trails and sentencing, in hopes that those deserving punishment receive it and those innocent are cleared.

The first process, which people finding themselves in the criminal justice system are likely to face, is the preliminary hearing, where the prosecuting attorney must present strong enough probable cause to allow the case to go before a grand jury. Though it is not a required part of the process, it is largely utilized by both prosecuting and defense attorneys as a forum to feel out the case at hand.

Once a preliminary hearing is requested the case is added to the next docket of hearings that will go before the judge. In Marengo County District Court preliminary hearings are usually held once a month.

During the hearings the prosecutor is allowed to call witnesses of the case to testify before the judge about the specifics of the case. The defense attorney is allowed to examine the witness as well, allowing both sides their first crack at questioning in the case.

However, the complete list of witnesses doesn&8217;t have to testify during the hearing, and the number of witnesses called is left to the discretion of the prosecutor, who must only establish probable cause to move the trail to grand jury. Griggers said witnesses, who have received subpoenas for preliminary hearings, are frequently called and told that their testimony is not needed at that point in the trial process.

Griggers said it is pretty rare for a case to lack the amount of witnesses needed for it to move to a grand jury. He said usually if something comes up and no witness can make it the hearing will move to the next month&8217;s docket or the hearing will be waived and move to grand jury.

Director of Public Safety Jeff Manuel agrees.

Griggers said these rare instances don&8217;t really slow the process because grand jury is only held three or four times a year, so moving back a preliminary hearing doesn&8217;t slow the trail process. He said the prosecutor could also accept a plea bargain, which is common at preliminary hearings, in such instances.

Griggers said if a person pleads at the hearing stage the charge is usually dropped to a misdemeanor if it is a felony charge. He said in drug related cases the court can also defer prosecution at the hearing stage, allowing individuals charged to attend rehab or receive drug tests, or both, before they come back before the court.


Judicial Process

This is the first in a series that will look at the judicial process from the preliminary hearing through sentencing.

The series will appear each Tuesday.