From Scott:

Last time, I discussed some of the processes involved in a criminal trial for traffic and misdemeanor cases. This time, I intend to step up to the much more serious level of felony offenses. Before I go into the more lengthy process associated with trying and convicting a person of a felony, let’s take a look at some of the differences between felonies and misdemeanors.

Under Illinois law, a misdemeanor is a crime that is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for up to 365 days, plus a fine of up to $1,000. Misdemeanors are, by nature, less serious than felonies. Driving under the influence (DUI) is a misdemeanor, as are vandalism, trespassing, and shoplifting. However, how about this comparison: if you drive a car with expired license plates, it’s just a traffic ticket. If you alter the expiration date on your plates, it becomes a felony—the same class of felony as robbery.

On a side note, if you plan to include legal terms in your novel, be sure to get the name of the offense correct. An Illinois prosecutor would not say a suspect has been charged with shoplifting, because the legal term is “retail theft.” The same goes for pretty much any offense. Do your research! “Assault” can be extremely confusing. Under the FBI definition, if you strike another person, you have committed assault. But in Illinois, striking another person is considered “battery.” Making a threat is defined as “assault.”

Some misdemeanor offenses can become felonies under certain conditions. For example, a first DUI offense is a misdemeanor, but subsequent convictions are treated as felonies. Theft is an offense with even more routes to being charged as a felony. Not only is there a dollar amount (more than $500) that will make a theft offense a felony, but once a person has been convicted of a theft-related offense, all future theft-related are felonies, regardless of the amount.

Some offenses start out as felonies, regardless of the conditions or mitigating/aggravating factors. Murder, arson, and rape, all are treated as felonies in Illinois. Felony offenses can result in fines in excess of $1,000, and imprisonment in a state prison for from 366 days up to natural life. Illinois used to have certain crimes, such as murder, which could result in the death penalty under certain circumstances. However, under current Illinois law there is no capital punishment.

Misdemeanors come in three degrees of seriousness, each with escalating penalties. Class C is the least serious category, followed by Class B and Class A. For felony offenses, there are five categories. Class 4 felonies are the least serious, working from there up to Class 1 felonies. The most serious type of felony in Illinois is Class X, which can result in prison terms of up to 60 years or even life without parole.

Before a person can go on trial for a felony in Illinois, there must first be an indictment by a grand jury. From the available pool of jurors, fifteen people are selected to serve on a grand jury. They typically meet every Tuesday for six months, covering a great number of cases.

First, a Bill of Indictment is drawn up. Then an attorney from the prosecutor’s office will have a police officer provide testimony as to why the person is suspected of having committed a felony. Once the evidence has been presented, the jury is left to deliberate in private. If they believe that the State has presented sufficient evidence to show that it’s more likely than not that the suspect committed the offense (“Probable Cause”), then they issue an indictment.

Grand jury proceedings are, by their very nature, kept secret. A number of reporters demonstrated their ignorance of the criminal court system when, during the investigations of the police-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, they complained that the grand jury proceedings were hidden from the public. Grand jury proceedings are always hidden from the public. The reason is simple. When a case involving members of powerful organized crime families or street gangs is brought before a grand jury, the members of that jury have to know that their identities, and all that they say and do, will be kept in the strictest confidence. Otherwise, they and their families would likely become targets of “payback” violence.

A number of motions are filed by both sides. Typically, the defense attorney will file a motion to quash some of the prosecution’s evidence. Based upon the “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree” doctrine, if a police officer obtains evidence of a crime but, in so doing, violates the suspect’s constitutional rights, that evidence is thrown out. For example, if a cop pulls a car over and finds a dead body in the back seat, and the driver confesses to murdering the deceased, if the defense attorney can get the traffic stop to be ruled unconstitutional, then all of the evidence is thrown out. The police have no deceased, and they have no confession.

Another common motion in a felony trial is a motion for a directed verdict. In this situation, the defense counsel is asking the judge to rule that the State cannot possibly prove its case, and therefore the court should rule that the defendant is not guilty. This motion typically comes at the conclusion of the prosecution’s presentation of its case during the trial, prior to the defense presenting evidence or witnesses. Although it is a motion that is filed very frequently, it hardly ever succeeds.

The proceedings are more formal than a misdemeanor trial, but they take place in much the same fashion. The jury receives instructions from the judge, detailing what criteria must be met for a guilty verdict. They receive two forms for each charge: one says the defendant is guilty, and the other not guilty. When the jury reaches a verdict, they sign the corresponding form that agrees with their decision. The judge reads the verdict in court in front of the defendant, and if the verdict is guilty, the defense is given the opportunity to “poll the jury.” Basically, the judge asks each juror individually what their verdict was, and the juror will answer out loud, “Guilty.” Usually, at that point, the defendant is remanded to the custody of the corrections system.

Hopefully, through these two blogs you’ve gained a better understanding of how our criminal justice system works. Keep in mind that while the procedures from one jurisdiction to another will vary, they all follow the same basic framework that I’ve laid out for you here. As always, if you want to keep that touch of realism to your novels, do your research!

–Scott