Tahlequah Daily Press

February 27, 2013

Series of hearings may lead to trial

This is the first in an occasional series on the workings of the court and legal system.

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Suspects who find themselves charged with crimes in Cherokee County and other parts of Oklahoma can face a number of court hearings before they end up in a jury trial – if they make it that far at all.

The court process can often be bogged down in legal terms that mean little to the average person without explanation from a lawyer or judge. Some cases went their way through the court system in a matter of months, while others could be caught up in years’ worth of hearings.

In Oklahoma, an alleged criminal may be arrested before he or she is formally charged, but some are charged in district court before their arrest.

Formal charges are lined out in a court “information” prepared by prosecutors, and as judges explain to jurors during trial, that document isn’t evidence of guilt, but rather is used to detail the allegations.

Some of the significant steps in a felony case involve a judicial appearance, a preliminary hearing, a district court arraignment, and a jury trial.

“There can be some intermediate steps inserted in there for convenience purposes, or for other reasons like trying to resolve cases prior to trial,” said District Judge Darrell Shepherd.

Shepherd said the person accused of a crime will first face a judicial appearance following his or her arrest. The term “initial appearance” is commonly used for that first court date, but “arraignment” is also used loosely from time to time, Shepherd said.

During the first appearance, the accused will be told what he or she is charged with, and bail will be set or denied by the judge. Factors considered in setting a bond vary, but can include details of the case and whether the alleged criminal has any prior offenses.

The accused will then face a preliminary hearing – a process rarely used in other states, according to Shepherd.

“Most states have a grand jury procedure; a preliminary hearing is not the norm in most states,” said Shepherd. “Most states have a prosecutor that presents the case to a grand jury, and they determine whether to indict the defendant, similar to the federal system.”

But in Oklahoma, defendants will appear in a preliminary hearing set before a judge.

“The state has to establish two things at a preliminary hearing: that a felony was committed, and that probable cause exists to believe that [the suspect] is the defendant who committed it,” said Shepherd. “It serves as kind of a process for a judge to screen cases to determine whether there’s enough evidence to go to trial.”

Prosecutors typically present witness testimony and evidence during the preliminary hearing, but it’s often only a small amount of their overall case – “just to show enough” that the case, in prosecutors’ minds, should proceed, Shepherd said.

The accused also has a right to present testimony at a preliminary hearing, but Shepherd said that rarely occurs.

At the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, the presiding judge will decide whether to bind over the accused for trial.

“The vast majority of cases are bound over, but I wouldn’t say it’s rare that a case is dismissed at a preliminary hearing,” said Shepherd.

If he or she is bound over, the accused will eventually face a district court arraignment, the third major step in the road to a jury trial.

“The district court arraignment is to make sure the defendant understands what he’s charged with, and all of his rights, and that’s when he or she enters the first formal plea to the charge,” said Shepherd.

If the case makes its way to the district court arraignment, and a plea agreement isn’t reached with the accused, he or she will then be set for a jury trial.