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Pretrial Activities of a Criminal Trial: Steps, Purposes & Importance

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  • 0:23 Arraignment
  • 1:15 Bond Hearing
  • 2:29 Discovery
  • 3:13 Motion Practice
  • 4:16 Diversion Programs
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the pretrial steps before a criminal trial. We will look at what these steps are, why they are done and what they mean in a criminal case. We will then look at some specific examples of each.

Criminal Trials

A criminal trial is when two parties, a prosecutor representing the government and a defense attorney representing the accused, meet in court before a judge or jury in order to present evidence to support their case. Before we can get to the criminal trial, however, important steps are taken in the pretrial process.

Arraignment

The arraignment is the first hearing that a defendant will have in front of a judge. During the arraignment, the formal charges, or indictment, will be read to the defendant by the judge so that he can know why he is in legal trouble. It is during the arraignment that the judge will formally accept a 'not-guilty' or 'guilty' plea from the defendant and will appoint him a lawyer if he doesn't have one.

For example, let's say a defendant has received a notice in the mail to appear in front of a judge for an arraignment. He will show up at that time in the courthouse and walk up when his name is called. He will then have his indictment read out loud to him and will learn at that time what he has been charged with - let's say in this case an assault. He will at this point enter a not-guilty plea and ask that a lawyer be appointed to represent him in future hearings.

Bond Hearing

When a defendant is arrested for a crime or is charged with a crime, bond is set for him. Bond is a monetary amount or non-monetary set of conditions for a defendant established by a judge that ensures the defendant's presence at court hearings. Bond ensures that the defendant will show for future hearings and for trial. The amount of bond depends on many factors, including the severity of the offense, the prior criminal history of the defendant and the likelihood that a defendant may flee and not return to court. Sometimes, bond may be non-financial, such as 'on your own recognizance,' meaning that the court believes that the defendant will return to court on his own. There are times also when bond can be completely denied, such as is done in some murder cases.

Additionally, in some cases, defendants may have as a condition of bond some things he must or must not do. An example of this might be a court letting the assault defendant have a non-financial bond on the condition that he have no contact with his victim or be subject to a GPS unit.

Discovery

Discovery is the police reports, lab reports and evidence that the prosecutor or the defendant intends to use during trial. The prosecutor and defense attorney are also obligated to exchange witnesses' names and addresses and any recorded statements that the witnesses have made in the past. The specific materials that each side are obligated to exchange, and at what point they are obligated to do so, vary from state to state.

An example of discovery would be in the case of our defendant who committed an assault. The prosecutor might turn over a surveillance video tape that inadvertently caught the assault on video, the police report and the witnesses' names and statements.

Motion Practice

Motions are pleadings filed with the court before trial asking for a hearing or a ruling on something relevant to the case. Motions may address various issues of what evidence may or may not be let in during trial, what witnesses will be testifying or asking for additional tests to be run on DNA or for drugs. Motions are typically filed by one party and then the other side is given a few weeks to file their own response on how they think the court should rule on the motion. Then, it is set before the court for arguments.

An example of one motion that the assault defendant may file is a motion to dismiss. The defendant may file a motion to dismiss stating that he was arrested illegally and that all the evidence that the prosecutor has should be thrown out because it was obtained after his illegal arrest and wouldn't have been obtained otherwise. The prosecutor would have a chance to respond, and then a hearing would be set before the court.

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