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Trials, Plea Deals, Sentencing and Appeals in Federal Cases... I.        INTRODUCTION             It goes without saying that EVERY FEDERAL CASE and EVERY FEDERAL DEFENDANT is DIFFERENT.  The purpose of the following summary is to introduce you to some basic information about the FEDERAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM in Northern Virginia and throughout the United States.  This is not presented as legal advice and you should always consult an experienced attorney before you make any decisions regarding your criminal case.   II.      TRIAL             Federal felony cases are usually tried before a U.S. District Judge sitting with a jury.  Although a Judge can hear the case without a jury, it rarely happens because the Judge, the United States and the Defendant must all agree to such a trial.  Federal court felony criminal trials are decided by jury of twelve individuals chosen at random from a jury panel. These jurors only decide if you are “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” of the charges. The District Court Judge is the one to decide what the punishment will be.  The exception to this rule lies with death penalty cases.  Jurors in death penalty cases also determine whether a guilty defendant is to be sentenced to life imprisonment or death.    A)    Jury Selection - The trial begins with the selection of the jury. A panel of potential jurors is called to court from a list of available citizens generated by the Clerk’s Office. The District Judge asks questions of the panel, and the panel also answers written questions. The lawyers are allowed to keep certain members of the panel from sitting on the jury. The first twelve of the remaining panel members become jurors, and the next two to four panel members become alternate jurors, depending on the expected length of the trial.   B)     Opening Statements - Before the evidence is presented, the lawyers may make opening statements. During opening statements, the lawyers tell the jury what they believe the evidence will show.  The government almost always presents an opening statement.  Your lawyer will determine whether to present an opening statement after the government or reserve his/her opening statement until the beginning of the Defense case in chief.   C)    Government’s Case in chief - The United States has the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  The defense does not have to “prove” anything and you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  Since the defense has nothing to prove, the prosecutor starts the presentation of evidence first by calling witnesses to testify and offering exhibits for the jury to consider as evidence in the case.  During the government’s case in chief, your attorney will have an opportunity to cross- examine each of the government’s witnesses and/or challenge the admissibility of each of the government’s exhibits.  Your attorney may also choose not to cross-examine or challenge the government’s witnesses or evidence if he/she believes that it is in your best interest.   D)    Rule 29(a) Arguments - After the government has rested its case, your attorney may request that the government’s case be dismissed for failure to prove an essential element of the alleged crime.  During this relatively quick phase of the trial, each side presents arguments related to the government’s evidence and the judge determines whether enough evidence has been presented by the government to sustain a conviction.  If not, you win!  If so, it’s your turn to put on evidence (if you so choose).   E)    Defendant’s Case in chief – The Defendant is always PRESUMED innocent until proven guilty and as such, there is no requirement for the Defense to call witnesses or introduce evidence at a trial.  Accordingly, your attorney may choose to rely on the presumption of innocence and simply attack the government’s evidence in his/her closing arguments.  Nonetheless, if you have evidence or witnesses that tend to disprove the government’s case against you, your attorney will have an opportunity to present this evidence after the government has rested its case.             You will also have an opportunity to testify in your defense. WARNING: it is usually risky for a defendant to take the stand and subject him/herself to cross-examination by an experienced prosecutor.  NEVER TAKE THE STAND UNTIL YOU HAVE DISCUSSED THE PROS and CONS WITH YOUR ATTORNEY.   F)     Final Arguments - After all the evidence has been presented, the lawyers argue the facts to the jury.  The prosecution will be first to conduct final argument, then your attorney will present his/her final arguments and then the prosecutor will have an opportunity to REBUT your attorney’s arguments.   G)    Jury Deliberations - Jurors are usually average working people from the community. They are not specially trained in law. They use their common sense when deciding the case. Although the District Judge will instruct them about “the presumption of innocence” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” jurors rely on many things in coming to a decision in a case.  Regardless of how they come to a decision, the jurors must vote unanimously in order to issue a verdict.  If only one juror refuses to vote the same way as the other eleven jurors, the jury is said to be a “hung jury.”  The District Judge will send a “hung jury” back to the jury room to reach an agreement on several occasions before he/she will declare a “hung jury,” which will require that the entire case be re-tried.      H)     Verdict - If you are found “Not Guilty,” you will be released. If there is a “Guilty” verdict, then the District Judge will order the Probation Department to prepare a Presentence Investigation Report to assist the District Judge at sentencing. It takes approximately three months between a conviction and sentencing, unless you had an expedited presentence interview.   I)      Release – If you are found guilty at trial, you should be prepared to be ordered into the custody of the U.S. Marshalls.  If you were previously on pretrial release, the District Judge may continue that release until sentencing, unless you were convicted of a crime of violence or a drug trafficking offense.    III.     GUILTY PLEAS             It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of federal defendants plead guilty.  The risks involved in going to trial in these cases is significant and the potential sentences for most federal crimes can range anywhere from probation to life imprisonment.  Regardless of the statistics or the risks involved in going to trial, it is the sole decision of the defendant whether to plead guilty.  Some possible benefits of a guilty plea are that: the prosecutor may dismiss some charges; the prosecutor may not file new charges; the prosecutor may recommend a favorable sentence; you may get credit for accepting responsibility, etc.   A)     Plea Agreement - Any promises the prosecutor makes for your guilty plea will be put in a written plea agreement. That agreement is signed by you, your lawyer, and the prosecutor. Some plea agreements require you to waive your right to appeal a sentence (waiver of appeal clause), unless the Judge sentences you in violation of law or outside the terms contemplated by the waiver of appeal clause.   B)    Plea Hearing - You must enter a guilty plea in court before a District Judge.  You may also enter a guilty plea before a Magistrate Judge if you agree to plead guilty before a Magistrate Judge. The Judge must ask you many questions so the record shows you understand what you are doing. During the hearing, the prosecutor will briefly tell the Judge the facts of the case. You must agree to those facts for the Judge to accept your guilty plea.   C)    Effect of Plea Once the District Judge accepts your plea, you are just as guilty as if a jury returned that verdict. Once you are convicted of a felony, you lose the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to sit on a jury, and the right to possess firearms.  You may also lose access to certain federal benefits and programs   D)    After Plea The procedure after a guilty plea is the same as after a conviction at trial. A Presentence Investigation Report will be ordered and you will be either released or detained until sentencing   IV.     SENTENCING             Sentencing takes place approximately three months after you have been convicted by a jury or guilty plea, unless you had an expedited presentence interview. The District Judge decides the sentence. Unlike state court, you cannot simply agree with the prosecutor to serve a particular amount of time or probation.   A)    Federal Sentencing Guidelines - The District Judge decides your sentence based upon a book called the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual. That book works on a point system. You get points for the seriousness of the offense and your role in the offense. Points may be subtracted if you accept responsibility for the offense or if you were only a minor participant. The Manual also considers your criminal history. Your criminal history is the record of your prior convictions in state and federal courts. A chart at the back of the Manual determines your sentencing range, based upon your criminal history points and the points you received for the offense conduct.   B)    Mandatory Minimum Punishments - Some drug and firearms cases have mandatory minimum punishments. These minimum punishments apply even if the Federal Sentencing Guidelines would otherwise give you a lower sentence.   C)    Departures - If the District Judge sentences you to more or less time than your sentencing range, it is called a “departure.” The District Judge must have a good legal reason for a departure. The District Judge cannot depart downward below a mandatory minimum punishment, unless the reason is that you have provided substantial assistance to the government in the prosecution of others.   D)    Presentence Investigation Report - Before the sentencing hearing, the District Judge will review a Presentence Investigation Report prepared by a probation officer. That report summarizes the offense conduct, your criminal history, and other relevant background information about you. Most important, the report calculates a range of punishment for the District Judge to consider in your case. The probation officer creates the report based upon information from the prosecutor, independent investigation, and an interview with you in the presence of your lawyer. If you agree in writing, the probation officer can begin the interview before your conviction. This can greatly reduce the time you remain in local custody between conviction and transfer to a federal facility. Discuss this procedure with your lawyer.   E)    Sentencing Hearing - At the sentencing hearing, the District Judge will review your objections to the Presentence Investigation Report and make findings about any facts or legal issues that cannot be agreed upon. Your lawyer will address the legal issues and point out the facts in your favor. District Judges usually do not like to hear from relatives who are just there to plead for a reduced sentence, but their presence is welcome. Letters of recommendation and other helpful evidence should be provided to your lawyer well before sentencing so the District Judge can see them before the hearing. Before the District Judge pronounces the sentence, you can speak. You should speak only if you are going to say something about being sorry for the crime. It is a bad idea for you to start claiming innocence or making excuses at sentencing. It is better to say nothing.   F)     Concurrent and Consecutive Sentences - No area of law is more confusing to defendants and lawyers than whether multiple sentences (more than one), may be served at the same time (concurrent), or one after another (consecutive). This issue will require study by your attorney and can possibly be negotiated with the prosecutor as a recommendation by the parties.   V.      APPEAL             An appeal is not a new trial. An appeal is a review of your case by the United States Court of Appeals for the Circuit that covers your District Court.  For example, cases from the Eastern District of Virginia and the District of Maryland are heard by the Fourth Circuit, which is located in Richmond, Virginia and cases from the District of Puerto Rico are heard by the First Circuit, which is located in Boston, Massachussetts. You may only appeal after you have been sentenced. Transcripts of all testimony, and all the legal documents in your case, are sent to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals decides whether the District Judge made any mistakes in ruling on the law in your case. If the Court of Appeals decides there was some important mistake made by the District Judge in your case, the usual remedy is that you will be allowed to have a new trial or a new sentencing. That is called a “reversal.” It does not happen often. It is very difficult to be released while your appeal is being decided. At the Law Offices of Juan E. Milanes, PLLC, we understand that you are going through a difficult time and are mindful of both your emotional and legal needs. Our goal is to help you overcome your financial and/or legal difficulties as quickly as possible. Our attorneys in Northern Virginia always treat you and your family with the respect and compassion that you deserve!   Trust the Law Offices of Juan E. Milanes, PLLC when you need effective bankruptcy defense in Virginia and Washington, D.C. We provide convenient office hours to meet your busy schedule, including evening and weekend appointments for current clients. We can create a plan to help you enjoy a fresh financial start, save your home from foreclosure, or protect your legal rights in federal court.   Are you ready to take the first step towards relief? Contact our  lawyers in Reston / Herndon / Sterling to set up a free consultation today!  Contact Us         The Law Offices of Juan E. Milanes, PLLC is a compassionate bankruptcy attorney in Reston, VA that is dedicated to providing all clients with manageable debt relief solutions. Contact us today! We proudly serve Reston, Herndon and the Washington, D.C. area. We also serve Aldie, Alexandria, Annandale, Arcola, Arlington, Ashburn, Belle Haven, Brambleton, Bristow, Broadlands, Burke, Centreville, Chantilly, Clifton, Countryside, DC, District of Columbia, Dulles, Fair Lakes, Fairfax, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Fort Belvoir, Fort Hunt, Fort Myer, Gainesville, Great Falls, Hamilton, Haymarket, Herndon, Kings Park, Kingstowne, Lake Ridge, Landmark, Leesburg, Lincolnia, Lorton, Manassas, Manassas City, Manassas Park, Mantua, McLean, Merrifield, Middleburg, Mt. Vernon, Newington, Nokesville, North Springfield, Oakton, Occoquan, Potomac Falls, Purcellville, Reston, Rose Hill, South Riding, Southbridge, Sterling, Tysons, Tysons Corner, Vienna, Warrenton, Washington, DC, West Falls Church, and West Springfield. "This law firm is a Debt Relief Agency.  We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code."
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