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Mon, Sept. 23

Judicial process can be confusing

The criminal justice system, unlike television court cases which are wrapped up in less than an hour, can be a long, complicated and frustrating process.

Defendants charged with crimes can travel down one of several meandering paths to justice depending on the crime, Kingman Assistant City Attorney Jim Mapp said.

Misdemeanor offenses are handled by either Kingman Municipal Court or Kingman/Cerbat Justice Court.

Felony crimes are handled by Mohave County Superior Court.

Misdemeanors that occur in the city are referred to Kingman Municipal Court.

Misdemeanors in the county are assigned to Kingman/Cerbat Justice Court.

A defendant charged with a felony is entitled to a jury trial.

Only several misdemeanor charges are eligible for jury trials.

Those include DUIs, drug- or theft-related charges or fraud charges, Mapp said.

Misdemeanor charges not qualified for jury trials include traffic violations and domestic violence or disorderly conduct cases.

Felony cases range from lesser offenses such as drug possession to first- or second-degree murder.

A defendant arrested for a felony has a preliminary hearing in justice court or is indicted by a grand jury.

For felonies, grand juries are usually the first step in the judicial process, Mapp said.

Every three months, a new county grand jury is selected.

They are chosen in a similar manner to jurors chosen for a regular criminal trial.

Jurors can be excused if they know the defendant or if there is a hardship.

Thirty to 40 county or city residents are randomly picked by computer and interviewed by a Superior Court judge.

The list is whittled to 20 jurors, 16 permanent jurors and four alternates.

Grand jurors hear as many as 20 felony cases in a day in hearings that are closed to the public.

Generally, they can consider about 200 cases during the 90 days they serve.

The grand jury meets each Thursday.

At least nine jurors are needed to convene a grand jury and indict a defendant.

The grand jury will listen to presentations by the county attorney's office and decide whether there is enough evidence to indict suspects.

Usually, neither defendants nor attorneys are present at the hearings unless allowed by prosecutors.

The only qualifications to serve on the grand jury are being registered to vote and having an Arizona driver's license.

Transcripts of the grand jury hearings are sealed, unavailable to the public.

Only the defendant and his or her attorney can have access to the transcripts.

Once indicted, the defendant's case is assigned to one of six divisions in Superior Court.

A defendant can be assigned a public defender or legal defender or hire an attorney.

The county legal defender is assigned a case if there is a conflict with the county public defender's office, such as multiple defendants.

In justice court, defendants also can be assigned an attorney from the public defender or legal defender's office, Mapp said.

In municipal court, defendants usually are not represented by attorneys, but if they are, contracted private attorneys will handle their cases, he said.

Once defendants are indicted for felonies, they are arraigned in Superior Court, where they pled guilty or not guilty.

Almost always, defendants plead not guilty and are assigned attorneys.

During the life of the case, a defendant goes through a series of hearings, such as a case management hearing, an omnibus hearing or a number of status hearings.

During the long, sometimes tedious journey through the legal system, a defendant can also change his or her plea to guilty usually for a reduced charge, have bond reduced or asked to be released from custody.

In justice court or municipal court, the defendant is arraigned, then has one or two hearings before the trial.

The process is much shorter, taking up to six months, Mapp said.

Felony cases, usually murder charges, can involve multiple hearings and take years.

The process of jury selection starts when a group of citizens is summoned to court to form a jury pool.

Up to 150 jurors can be called up for murder trials.

During a "voir dire" process, potential jurors answer questions under oath about their qualifications, Mapp said.

The questioning weeds out jurors who may have a strong prejudice for or against either side.

For example, those who have strong feelings about alcohol may not be fair jurors for someone charged with DUI.

After the questioning process is over, the prosecutor and the defense attorneys are entitled to a certain number of "strikes." Each side eliminates one juror at a time.

If there are extra jurors after each side uses all its strikes, the judge will strike, or eliminate, the extra jurors, usually at random.

For misdemeanor cases, attorneys get two strikes.

In more serious crimes like murder cases, attorneys can use eight strikes, Mapp said.

The jurors who are left form a 12-person or eight-person jury.

They will hear the case and render a verdict.

Two alternate jurors serve in case a juror is unable to continue with the trial.

In justice court or municipal court trials, a six-person jury is used for a trial that takes only a day.

For longer trials, an alternate may be called in, Mapp said.

Jury qualifications are being a resident of Kingman or Mohave County and speaking and understanding English, he said.

If the felony case, usually a murder trial, calls for a maximum sentence of more than 30 years, a 12-person jury is used.

If a lesser charge brings a maximum sentence of less than 30 years, an eight-person jury is used.

Before and during the trial, the judge instructs the jury on restrictions.

Jurors cannot discuss the case with each other until the end of the trial.

They cannot reach a decision until then, Mapp said.

Jurors are also prohibitive from talking to witnesses, attorneys, the media or the public while the trial is in progress.

Once the jury reaches a verdict, the judge sentences the defendant.

Arizona is one of a few states where a judge determines the sentence.

Defendants who are convicted with a felony can receive more than a year in prison or get probation.

Those convicted with a misdemeanor is punished by up to six months in county jail.

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