Trials: A Three Part Series

We often get asked, “What happens in trials?” As simple as the question sounds, it’s much more complicated! So, we’ve decided to break down trial for you in a 3 part series!

Bench Trial vs. Jury Trial

Let’s start with learning about the two different types of trials. Now, you may be asking yourself, “There’s two types of trials??”. Yup! Thanks to TV and movies, you are most likely familiar with jury trials, but what most people are unaware of, is there is also something called a “Bench Trial”. This blog will focus on the difference between a Bench Trial and a Jury Trial.

District Court

In District Court, Defendants are limited to bench trial, meaning, the case is heard only by a Judge and not a jury. 

All traffic and misdemeanor offenses must be heard in District Court first.  If the Defendant is found guilty, the Defendant has the option to appeal the case to Superior Court depending on the classification of the offense.  Misdemeanors (even traffic ones) can be appealed to Superior Court, however infractions cannot.  If a case is appealed to Superior Court, the case will be heard ‘de novo,’ which means “from the new.” Basically, the case will be heard as if the prior conviction in District Court had not happened. The District Attorney cannot argue to the Judge or Jury that the Defendant has already been found guilty as a reason to find them guilty in Superior Court. 

Felony cases, on the other hand, follow a different criminal procedure. Typically, all felonies start in District Court.  If the Defendant and the State do not reach an agreement for dismissal and/or plea, then the Defendant will be indicted.  This occurs while the matter is pending in District Court.  The State takes the case before a grand jury where they decide whether there is probable cause that a crime occurred. Neither the Defendant nor the Defense Counsel are allowed to be present nor make arguments during these hearing.  If the grand jury decides there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime, they will issue a true bill of indictment. The case is then transferred to Superior Court for trial before a judge or a jury of their peers.

Superior Court

In Superior Court, Defendants can elect to have a bench trial or a jury trial.  Jury trials take place before a group of 12 members of the community and the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty by unanimous decision.  If the Jury cannot reach a unanimous vote, then the case is considered a ‘hung jury.’  In cases with a hung jury, the case gets dismissed, however the State can elect to refile the charges and try to convict the Defendant again. In both, bench trial and jury trial, the judge applies the sentence according to the N.C. Structured Sentencing guidelines (i.e., the sentencing level dictates a range by which the Judge must impose their sentence within).

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