Witness Reporting Schedule for Sunday, May 19, 2013
Superior Court Cases
State Court Cases
If you have questions,
please call the Victim-Witness Assistance Program at
I am a victim or witness and have been served with a subpoena or court notice. Do I have to go to court?
Once you have been served with a subpoena/court notice, you must appear in court on the stated date and time unless excused by the Assistant District Attorney handling the case. Be sure to bring your subpoena with you when you come to court. Please call the information number listed on your subpoena on the day before your scheduled court appearance. A recorded message will tell you if the case has been continued or perhaps even ended, in which event you need not appear. Otherwise, you must appear in court. If you fail to appear as directed, the judge may impose sanctions upon you, including a fine and/or a sentence to jail. If for any reason you are genuinely unable to appear on the date ordered (because, for example, of a medical emergency), please contact the District Attorney at 652-7308 as soon as possible. The sooner you call, the better the chance the DA has of rescheduling your case. If you have a serious problem on the very day of court, once again you should immediately call the District Attorney’s Office so that we may speak to the Judge on your behalf.
If I am a victim or witness in a case, and have been sent a notice to come to court, do I need my own attorney?
No. If you are the victim In a criminal matter the lawyers of the Office of the District Attorney proceed on your behalf on the charges brought against a defendant. You are free, however, to consult with a private attorney about your situation if you wish but be advised that the attorney will not be allowed to participate, in any way, in the criminal prosecution of your case.
What if a defense attorney calls or contacts me about the case, or tries to talk to me in the hall or in the back of the courtroom?
If you wish, you may discuss your case with the defense attorney but the District Attorney would like to know in advance if you plan to do so, as we might prefer to have someone from our legal staff present when you speak with that attorney. Please also be advised that you are not required to discuss the case with any representative of the defense and may certainly decline to do so. Remember that the attorney representing the defendant is performing a legal duty when that attorney investigates the case but also remember that what you say could damage the case if taken in the wrong context. If you would prefer not to discuss your case with the defense, feel free to refer the defense attorney to our office for any information the attorney wants about the case.
I am the victim in a case, and I want to drop the charges. Can I do that?
Many people believe that a victim of a crime has the sole power to "press charges" or to later "drop the charges." That belief is incorrect. All crimes are deemed to be offenses against all the people of the State of Georgia, not just the individual crime victim. It is the District Attorney, entrusted with the responsibility to prosecute offenses committed against the citizens of our state, who must make the final decision as to whether or not to pursue a criminal prosecution – and ONLY the District Attorney can dismiss the charges before they reach a judge. This is actually helpful to you as a crime victim because it takes the responsibility for prosecuting your offender off your shoulders and puts it on the District Attorney, where it legally belongs -- the defendant therefore cannot "pressure" you into dismissing the charges.
Please be assured, however, that the District Attorney, through the Assistant District Attorney handling your case, will take all your concerns and feelings into account, along with the evidence in the case, the defendant’s record and, of course, the interests of all the citizens of Chatham County and Georgia when deciding on whether and how to proceed with a case.
When I come to court, will I have to see the defendant? And do I have to talk in front of the defendant?
Generally, yes, you will see the defendant at a court hearing. The defendant in a criminal case has the constitutional right to "confront and cross-examine" witnesses called to testify against him or her. This means that the defendant must be present in court to hear what you and other witnesses have to say. If you testify, the defendant’s attorney can, and likely will, ask you additional questions after an Assistant DA has questioned you.
You should also know that you may be “sequestered” during a hearing, which means being placed outside the courtroom (courts often do not let witnesses listen to other witnesses testify) and thus you may only see the accused while you are actually testifying. The District Attorney’s Victim Witness Assistance Program can provide a separate waiting area for victims and witnesses awaiting their turn to testify.
I am the victim of a crime. Can I obtain restitution for my financial losses?
If a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted in Chatham’s Recorders Courts to a misdemeanor, or later in our Superior Court to a felony (a more serious offense), the Judge may choose to order the defendant to pay restitution to anyone who suffered damages. The restitution amount is based on losses a victim or witness has reported and can document to police and prosecutors. If restitution is in fact ordered, it is paid to you through a local probation office and thus you would NOT have to have any further interaction with the defendant. Restitution is usually ordered and received in installments over a defendant’s period of probation. Failure to pay the required restitution could lead to an offender’s sentence of probation being “revoked” and the offender sent to jail.
Restitution is not an option, however, for defendants who are sent to prison on what is called “straight sentence” – such as a sentence of four years in prison -- which involves no period of probation.
Once again, you remain free to consult with a private attorney about your options in civil court to attempt to collect financial losses from a defendant, even if the defendant was ordered to serve a straight sentence.
What is an Arraignment or “First Appearance?”
Within 48-72 hours of their arrest on a felony charge, all defendants in Recorder’s Court appear before a Judge, via video conference, from the Chatham County Detention Center. At this brief hearing, a defendant is formally notified of:
The Judge will then receive an outline of the facts of the case and information about the defendant’s past criminal record and the defendant’s apparent ties to our community (family? home? job?). The Judge, will then decide if the defendant will be afforded the opportunity to post a bail bond to obtain release from jail and, if so, the bond’s amount and its conditions – although there are a number of serious offenses on which the Judge might not be able to set a bond. Conditions may include a ban from all contact with the crime victim or witnesses, or banishment from certain addresses or locations relevant to the case.
What is a preliminary hearing?
A preliminary hearing (sometimes called a preliminary examination) is an evidentiary hearing conducted not long after a defendant’s arrest and is held by a judge to determine whether “probable cause” exists that a crime has in fact been committed and that the charged defendant committed that crime. It is not the trial of the case. Defendants are only legally entitled to a preliminary hearing if they are still in jail on the date of the hearing and thus defendants released on bond are not entitled to a preliminary hearing. Even if they remain in jail, defendants may choose to give up or “waive” their preliminary hearing and have their case sent directly to the next step in the criminal justice process.
Why do some cases get dismissed?
If the prosecutor handling a case determines that the police have not gathered sufficient evidence to obtain a criminal conviction, the prosecutor may file a motion with the preliminary hearing judge asking that the case be dismissed. This action is rarely taken by the prosecutor, however, and is taken only after a case has been completely investigated and only after the police have exhausted all avenues for obtaining additional evidence. Defense attorneys may also ask the judge, after hearing the evidence presented in court at a preliminary hearing, to dismiss the case because of insufficient evidence. The preliminary hearing judge may grant the motion to dismiss if the judge is satisfied that the case cannot be proven at a later trial.
What is a plea bargain? Will the District Attorney plea bargain my case?
The term "plea bargain" is unfortunately misleading to the public in that it implies that the defendant and his attorney have managed to obtain a reduction of charges or a lenient sentence. That is untrue. A plea bargain is instead simply an agreement between the Assistant District Attorney representing the State of Georgia and the defense that the State will recommend a specific punishment in the case to the judge if the defendant is willing to acknowledge guilt and enter a plea of guilty. The agreement as to punishment is not binding upon the judge, who may choose to impose any punishment within the range authorized by law. There are advantages to both the State and the defendant in arriving at plea agreements in many cases but be assured that the DA will not negotiate any plea for less punishment than the facts, circumstances, and applicable legal principles warrant.
Can a defendant plead guilty, early in the case, in the Recorder’s Court?
Recorders Courts can typically only accept guilty pleas in misdemeanor cases, so if the case merits disposition as a misdemeanor, it can be handled at the arraignment/First Appearance or at the preliminary hearing. Misdemeanors are less serious convictions and can result in no more than 12 months in prison. If some or all of the 12 months is probated, a defendant can receive a fine up to $1,000, community service, other special conditions of probation such as Domestic Violence counseling, drug and/or alcohol treatment, banning from certain locations or contact with the case’s victims or witnesses, and/or restitution. The Assistant District Attorney in charge of a case may prefer to consult with the police and a crime’s victim before agreeing to any plea.
Can a defendant also plead guilty to a felony charge?
After a felony preliminary hearing in a lower court in which the Judge “binds the case over to Superior Court,” or after a defendant “waives” the case to Superior Court, the District Attorney may offer a negotiated plea to the defendant’s felony charges. Felony sentences are in ranges of years, not months, and felony convictions are of course considered more severe than misdemeanor convictions. The defendant may be sentenced to prison, or to probation, or to a “split sentence” of some time in prison followed by a period of probation. If some or all of the sentence is probated, once again there may be a fine, community service, other special conditions of probation such as Domestic Violence counseling, drug and/or alcohol treatment, banning from certain locations or from contact with the case’s victims or witnesses, and/or restitution. The Assistant District Attorney in charge of a case may again prefer to consult with the police and a crime’s victim before agreeing to a plea.