In a felony case (any crime where punishment could involve over a year in prison), one would have basically the following court appearances:
Initial arraignment (plea of “not guilty”)
At this hearing, your attorney, the district attorney and the judge sit down and try to work out a favorable disposition. If an agreement is reached, a plea of guilty is entered and the case is continued for sentencing. If the parties are unable to agree, the next hearing is the preliminary examination.
Here the district attorney will put on a shortened version of his case against you. He/she will most likely not call all the witnesses in the case, as this is not a formal trial. Although the defense has the opportunity to present its case, this is usually not done at this hearing. You will also have the opportunity to cross examine any of the witnesses against you.
A judge does not determine guilt or innocence and the burden of proof is not guilt beyond a reason of a doubt, like at trial. At this hearing, the judge simply decides if he/she has a “strong suspicion” that a crime was committed and that you were involved in the commission of that crime. Assuming that this burden is met, you are “bound-over” for trial.
Much like the initial court appearance, this again involves the formal statement of a “not guilty” plea and a denial as to any allegations. Also, all future court dates are assigned.
Depending on the facts of the case, certain motions may be filed, such as illegal search and seizure, discovery or motions to set aside the earlier judge’s bound-over ruling.
Again, this appearance is similar to the earlier plea bargaining session. However, by this time the district attorney will have had ample time to evaluate the case. Therefore, if the case appears stronger than originally thought, the offer may be worse than at the earlier plea bargaining session. On the other hand, if the evidence is not that strong, the offer may improve.
Again, if the offer is accepted, a guilty plea is entered and the case is set for sentencing. If the parties are unable to resolve the matter, it is set for trial.
A jury of twelve people is selected to hear the evidence in the case. They must unanimously agree beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty in order to convict you. There are cases, however, where it may be to one’s advantage to waive trial by jury and have the evidence heard by the judge on the case.