Arrest – In most cases the criminal justice process starts when a crime is committed and a person is arrested by a police officer for that crime.
Arraignment – Within 24 hours of the defendant's arrest, s/he will be arraigned in the District Court. Three things will occur: (1) a plea of not guilty will be entered; (2) an attorney will be appointed for the defendant if he cannot afford one and (3) a date for the probable cause hearing will be set. Bail can only be set by the Superior Court in murder cases.
Probable Cause Hearing – Soon after the arraignment, there may be a probable cause hearing before a judge in district court. The judge will determine whether the defendant will remain in custody until the Grand Jury considers the case. The prosecution must produce evidence to show reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime. The defense has the right to cross-examine witnesses and to present evidence that probable cause does not exist. Often times the defendant will waive his right to a probable cause hearing.
Grand Jury – If the judge finds "probable cause" the case will be sent to the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury is a panel of between 12 and 23 persons who determine whether there is enough evidence to "indict" (formally charge) the defendant. The Department of Justice presents evidence to the Grand Jury. Neither the defendant nor his attorney(s) are present. If witnesses of the crime are subpoenaed to testify, the prosecutor and the grand jurors may ask questions. This proceeding is confidential and victims are not able to attend.
Arraignment in Superior Court – The purpose of the arraignment is to serve the defendant with the indictment returned by the grand jury. The defendant enters a plea and the case is scheduled for trial. Often times the defendant will also waive his right to an arraignment.
Bail – A certain amount of cash or corporate surety will be set by the Superior Court to ensure the defendant's appearance at court hearings. If the defendant is out of jail on bail, he has certain restrictions to follow, which may include having no contact with you or witnesses.
Structuring Conference – Attorneys from both sides meet with the judge to schedule hearings and trial dates and to set deadlines for filing motions with the court.
Suppression Hearing – In many cases it is common practice for the defense to file a motion to suppress or keep certain evidence from being introduced at the trial, i.e. the defendant's confession. These hearings may last anywhere from several hours to several days or more.
Pre-trial Motions – Attorneys will often ask the judge to make legal decisions in the criminal case prior to the actual trial. These requests are made by documents, called motions, filed with the court. Occasionally, a witness may be asked to testify at a particular motion hearing.
Superior Court Trial – The trial is usually held at the Superior Court for the county in which the crime was committed. The jury consists of twelve random community members from the county in which the crime was committed. The prosecutor presents evidence for the State to prove the defendant is guilty. The defendant may then present evidence on his behalf. After all the evidence is presented, the jury will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The jury must be unanimous in order to convict or acquit the defendant. If the jurors cannot come to an agreement, a new trial may be ordered.
Plea Negotiation – Many cases are settled without a trial by an agreement between the state and the defendant, which results in the defendant entering a plea of guilty in return to giving up the right to appeal the case. Such an agreement is subject to the approval by the court. When the defendant pleads guilty, the victim/family is spared from the ordeal of going through the trial and the risks associated with that process. While the State must ultimately make the decision whether to enter into a plea negotiation, the victim/family should be consulted before a plea negotiation is confirmed.
Sentencing – If a defendant is found guilty by a jury trial or pleads guilty, he is usually sentenced within 30 to 60 days. Before the sentencing hearing, the Judge will ask the Probation Department to do a pre-sentencing investigation (PSI). A probation officer will conduct an investigation of the defendant's background and will also contact the victim/family to get their input about the impact the crime has had on their lives. The Probation Department will prepare a report for the Judge, which will include a sentencing recommendation. The state and the attorney for the defendant will also recommend a sentence, which will be considered by the judge in determining the sentence.
Victim Impact Statement – At the sentencing hearing the survivors of the victim have the right to submit written victim impact statements to the judge for his/her review and to orally address the court as to the impact the crime has had on their lives. (Victim Impact Statement Brochure )
Appeal – The defendant who is found guilty at trial is entitled to appeal his conviction to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. An appeal must be based on legal issues and not simply because the defendant is unhappy about his conviction. (See the section on the Appeal Process).
Unsolved Case – Sometimes, police are unable to make an arrest in a case because there is not enough evidence to prove that someone is guilty. There is no statute of limitations in homicide cases and these cases will remain "open" for as long as it takes to solve the crime.
The criminal justice system often involves delays and postponements. Initial trial dates often change. Because of the seriousness of the charges involved, great care and time is devoted to each case. As a result, the duration between the initial investigation and its conclusion in court can be lengthy, often a year or more. This process will require your patience and determination.
Portable Document Format (.pdf). Visit nh.gov for a list of free .pdf readers for a variety of operating systems.
New Hampshire Department of Justice
33 Capitol Street | Concord, NH | 03301