The criminal trial process is complex, and how it progresses from one step to the next depends on the outcome of the previous step. Although the process is generally the same, each case is unique, which means there might be slight differences in each trial. Additionally, the procedures for misdemeanor charges differ slightly from those of felony offenses.
Below are the general steps for criminal trials in Wisconsin:
After an alleged crime is committed, the police will begin an investigation. This may include gathering physical evidence, taking photos of the scene, and obtaining statements from witnesses and/or suspects. Depending on the facts of the case, the police may immediately arrest a suspect or may continue with the investigation until a suspect is identified.
The District Attorney’s Review
When the police finish their investigation, they will refer the case to the district attorney (DA). The DA will review the evidence collected by police to determine if there is enough to issue formal charges against the suspect. If there isn’t, the case will be dropped. However, if the DA has enough evidence, they will formally charge the suspect. They can decide to charge as is, with additional charges, or with reduced charges.
The Initial Appearance
If the suspect is charged with a misdemeanor, they may be able to post bail and will be scheduled for their initial appearance. However, if they were charged with a felony, they must remain in jail until the initial appearance. During this step, the judge will inform the defendant of the charges they are facing and the penalties for a conviction.
For misdemeanor offenses, the defendant is asked to enter a plea. If they plead guilty or no contest, they will be scheduled for sentencing. If they plead not guilty, they will be scheduled for a motion hearing.
For felony offenses, the defendant will not enter a plea at this step; instead, they will be scheduled for an arraignment.
As in the initial appearance for misdemeanor charges, during the arraignment, the defendant will enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. For a guilty or no contest plea, the defendant will be sentenced. If the defendant pleads not guilty, they will be scheduled for a motion hearing.
The Preliminary Hearing
For felony offenses, the defendant will be scheduled for a preliminary hearing, during which they have a chance to hear the evidence being presented against them. This is also the step in which the prosecutor must demonstrate they have probable cause to press charges. If they don’t, the judge will dismiss or reduce charges.
The Pretrial Conference
During the pretrial conference, the defendant and the prosecutor will enter into negotiations to attempt to resolve the matter out of court. Often, the negotiations may include a bargain in which the defendant accepts a reduced charge in exchange for admitting to committing part of the offense. If they can’t settle on a deal, the case will be taken to trial.
During the trial, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the alleged crime by presenting evidence. Although the defendant does not have to prove their innocence, they do have the opportunity to challenge the prosecutor’s case against them. The fact finder (the judge or jury) will hear the evidence and decide whether not the defendant is guilty.
If the defendant pleads or is found guilty, they will be sentenced. The judge will determine which penalties to impose according to state laws.
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