The Stages of a Criminal Trial Explained

Most people are pretty unfamiliar with how a criminal trial works. The crime dramas that draw large numbers of viewers do not show the multiple steps that a trial involves. A criminal trial is a lengthy process that relies on strict regulations and laws to provide a fair case for all parties involved. Here is a step-by-step guide to the stages of a criminal trial.


The criminal trial process begins when a person is arrested. This can occur if a police officer witnesses a person committing a crime, has sufficient evidence to suspect that they have committed a crime or the officer has a warrant for the person’s arrest. After a person has been arrested, they are transported to a local jail for processing. This practice is commonly referred to as booking. They are photographed and have their fingerprints recorded.

Some people are not arrested in the conventional sense and are issued with a citation, which effectively acts as a court summons. If the defendant fails to appear, a warrant may be issued for arrest.

Pre-trial Assessment and Bail

After the accused person is remanded into police custody, they will have a chance to post bail during a special hearing. A judge will review the facts of the case and set bail at a certain amount. The defendant pays bail, representing a promise to appear for any court hearings during the trial. A person who seems to be a flight risk will usually be asked to surrender their passport. The defendant may be asked to regularly check in with police officers or judicial officials as part of their bail agreement. A person charged with a violent crime or deemed to be a risk to themselves, acquaintances, or the local community may have bail denied to them. This means that they must stay in custody up to and during their trial. Bail may not be set until they appear in court for their arraignment.


An arraignment involves the defendant’s first appearance in court. The presiding judge will read the details and facts of the case and will arrange a schedule of future court dates. The arraignment also represents a chance for the defendant to enter a plea about the charges they are facing. If the defendant pleads “not guilty, ” the case will proceed to trial. A “not guilty” plea may also be entered by the court if the defendant remains silent. If a “guilty” plea is submitted, then sentencing may be imposed at this appearance or a later date. Many defendants choose to plead guilty in return for a more lenient sentence. This is called a plea deal, and some 90% of cases are resolved in this way.

Preliminary Hearing

During a preliminary hearing, evidence is submitted by both the defendant and the prosecution to determine whether a trial should be held. Witnesses may be called to give evidence and can be examined by the legal representatives of both parties. A judge reviews the evidence submitted during this hearing and determines whether or not the current proceedings will lead to a trial.

Pre-Trial Motions

If a judge has determined that a case will go to trial, then pre-trial motions can determine what evidence, both in favor of and against the defendant, is used in the actual trial. These are called motions. The defense may try to exclude certain pieces of evidence or may ask that certain witnesses be dismissed from the task of testifying. Conversely, the prosecution might argue for the inclusion of specific evidence. A pretrial motion can be used in an instance where someone has to plead not guilty due to insanity. These motions are essentially small proceedings where arguments are made before a judge, who determines whether or not evidence can be included or excluded.


During a trial, the prosecution must attempt to prove the defendant’s guilt, while the defense must prove that the defendant is innocent. Evidence approved during pre-trial motions is provided to a jury, and witnesses are called to testify. After the proceedings, the jury meets privately to agree on a verdict.


After the jury has handed down a conviction to the defendant, the convicted person appears before a judge. The sentencing hearing determines what punishment will be applied to the defendant. The judge has to consider several different factors, including how severe the offense was, any previous crimes committed by the defendant, and the defendant’s circumstances. The judge will then impose the punishment on the defendant and provide a written record. The defendant may have to pay restitution or damages to any victims, or they may be given probation. They may be sentenced to a specific period in jail or prison. There can be some leeway in administering punishments, as each case is unique. Some states and jurisdictions have mandatory sentencing laws for certain crimes, which means that a judge may be bound by law to impose a particular sentence even if they feel the sentence is inappropriate.

The Appeals Process

After the judge determines a sentence, the defendant may have an opportunity to appeal the decision. The accused person can consult with their lawyer and make an appeal to a higher court to have their case reviewed. Most appeals end with the original sentence being upheld, but some sentences get overturned once they have been reviewed. Appeals are usually upheld when the judge or the prosecution errors during the preliminary trial or pre-trial motions. Depending on the jurisdiction, the convicted person may only have a few days to start the appeals process after the original trial ends.