(Editor's note: The Globe will be covering each of this year's Citizen's Police Academy classes held by the Dodge City Police Department. This is the third article in the series.)
'I'm here to tell you about what happens after the police are done with a case and hand it off to my office,” Assistant County Attorney J. Scott James told this weeks class Tuesday night.
James dissected the anatomy of a criminal case into ten steps from beginning to end and spoke of what he calls the “CSI effect.”
“There are a lot of things people see on TV and expect us to do in every case we have,” he said.
James said this is especially a factor in jury selection where jurors are looking for hard forensic evidence- fingerprints, DNA, etc.- linking someone to a crime, when in reality, about 95 percent of fingerprints sent for testing come back inconclusive.
“Forensic evidence is great when you have it, but it's not always going to be there,” James said. “Eyewitness testimony is just as valuable."
Examining the available evidence of the case is the first step for the County Attorney's office. This includes reading affidavits, studying crime scene photos, and sending evidence to labs for testing. James said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) tests most of the items Ford County brings into evidence, but there are different labs for different things. Depending on how busy a lab is, the time it takes for physical evidence to be tested and returned to the office can range from a few months to a few years.
“Drugs we send off for testing usually come back in a couple of months,” James said. “Fingerprints can take 7- 8 months, and if we send a gun for testing it can take up to a year and half to be returned to our possession.”
Depending on the strength of a case's evidence and the time needed for testing, the County Attorney's office next must make a decision whether to immediately prosecute a case or to wait. The amount of time it takes to move forward with prosecution can be affected if a case is not strong enough with the initial evidence.
James said, sometimes the decision is not what to charge a defendant with but when to file the charges.
“One thing that's difficult in law is to determine what you know and what you can actually prove,” James said.
Once charges have been filed, the defendant will have a first appearance in court.
“If someone is in custody, this is usually done by video from the jail,” James said. “We inform them of their charges and appoint them an attorney if they are indigent, which means they can't afford to get an attorney on their own.”
Page 2 of 3 - A defendant's bond and next hearing date are also set at a first appearance. Following a first appearance, a person charged with a felony crime has the right to a preliminary hearing and has the chance to enter into plea negotiations. During plea negotiations, a person's criminal history, level of danger to the community and likelihood of re-offending are taken into consideration.
“Occasionally the crime committed is so heinous that it doesn't matter if the person has no criminal history,” James said. "They don't have anything to lose by going to trial so their lawyer might not negotiate a plea."
Crimes of that nature are called “off-the grid” crimes and include rape, murder and treason.
The next step for the prosecuting attorney is to follow-up with witnesses and make sure they have all the evidence needed to proceed to trial. After completing pre-trial motions to determine what facts of the case will be admissible in court, the prosecuting attorney moves on to arraignment.
During arraignment, the defendant will plead guilty or not guilty to the charges against them. If the defendant pleads guilty, sentencing ensues. If a defendant is in custody and pleads not guilty, a trial must be scheduled within 90 days of the arraignment.
On the day of a trial, both the state and the defense attorney begin by presenting their opening argument where each side tells the jury evidence they will present and what the evidence is supposed to prove. In a felony case, the jury will consist of 12 people. Misdemeanor cases are tried in front of a six person jury.
James said jury selection can be difficult when a notorious case in prosecuted in a small area like Ford County. He also said possible jurors who are not truthful or try to invent reasons not to be on the jury can be charged with perjury.
“Without the public's assistance in this process, it doesn't work,” he said. “We can't conduct fair trials if people don't show up
Once opening arguments commence, the state presents its witnesses and evidence to the jury. The defense then does the same. Each side of the case has the opportunity to call “fact witnesses” and “expert witnesses” to the stand. Fact witnesses are individuals who can testify, under oath, that they saw components of the case take place. Expert witnesses are forensic scientists who perform testing on evidence in the case and have information “beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jurors.”
The final step in a criminal case is the presentation of closing arguments which is followed by jury instruction, deliberation and a verdict.
If the defendant if found guilty of a misdemeanor crime, sentencing usually takes place immediately after the trial. A guilty verdict for a felony crime is followed by a pre-sentence investigation to determine a persons criminal history. Sentencing takes place within 30- 60 days.
Page 3 of 3 - A persons sentence is established by the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines, a grid that calculates a jail sentence based on a combination of the severity level of the current conviction and the Defendant's criminal history.
The last step in a criminal proceeding is an appeal by the defendant. A convicted criminal has one chance to appeal the case in front of the Kansas Supreme Court. If the Kansas Supreme Court rules against the appeal, the case can then be taken to the Supreme Court. If the defendant wins the case, a new trial may be needed.
At next week's class, Lt. Colleen Brooks, Detective George and Terri Trent from SRS will present on domestic violence and child sexual assault.