Sunday, July 29, 2012

It Takes Forever and Nothing Happens: Criminal Court from a Victim’s Perspective – Part I (DUI Loss Entry No.19)

I attended criminal court nearly every month during the year after my parents were hit by a drunk driver.  The driver was eventually sentenced to twelve years in prison for causing their deaths.  On television and in movies, courtroom scenes contain high drama.  In real life, very little happens at most court appearances, and cases take a long time to get to trial.  As a lawyer, I ought to have known that before I ever stepped into the courtroom.  But I handle civil cases that involve money, not anyone being accused of a crime or going to jail, and I assumed criminal cases would be different. I was wrong.

Confusion about what is and isn’t happening in criminal court can make the pain and frustration of losing a loved one, or recovering from severe injuries, so much worse.  Below are some things I’ve learned both from watching the proceedings against the man who killed my parents and from the criminal defense attorneys I’ve gotten to know since then.  If you are a victim of a DUI driver or of another crime, knowing these things won’t make the case move any faster or ensure justice, but it might help you get through the process.

(1)    It takes a long time.  This refers to both individual court dates and the criminal case as a whole.  You may learn from the prosecutor that your case – the one against whoever is accused of the crime – is set for 9 a.m.  First, if this is one of the earliest court dates and injuries or deaths occurred, there won’t be a trial.  This is just the first of many court dates.  Second, you may arrive at 9 a.m., only to sit through an hour or more of proceedings in other cases.  There are lots of reasons for this.  If the case is in a busy county, a dozen or more cases are probably also scheduled for 9 a.m.  If even one takes more time than expected, all the others are delayed.  If you are set for 10 a.m., that probably means you’re waiting until after the 9 a.m. cases, so you could be behind twenty or more other matters. 

Also, usually judges hear cases first where the defendants – the people accused of the crimes – are already in jail.  So if the defendant in your case is not in prison, your case may be called later.  Finally, sometimes – often in the Chicago area – the defense attorney is running late.  Many criminal defense attorneys are solo lawyers.  This means they are the only lawyers in their firms and drive to multiple courtrooms in the same day.  Traffic, other court cases that run long, and car breakdowns can all cause delays.  Most judges try to accommodate these issues.  You might be wondering why it is your problem – you made it to court on time, why can’t the defense attorney?  It doesn’t seem fair.  But, unfortunately, this and the other factors are part of how the system runs day-to-day.  If you know that and are prepared for it, it may help the frustration level.
The case as a whole also can take a long time.  The prosecutor needs to determine what charges to file – that is, what specific crimes under what laws to present to the judge or a jury.  That can change with developments in the investigation or the case.  My mother died at the scene of the crash, and my dad lived another six and a half weeks.  When my father died, the prosecutor added charges and the potential sentence increased by over a decade.  The judge needs to decide if the defendant can be set free while the case is moving toward trial and, if so, if a bond is needed and the amount.  (The bond for the driver who killed my parents was originally set at half a million dollars, then increased to one million when my dad died.  A million dollar bond meant the driver would have needed to deposit with the court $100,000 to be set free pending trial.)  The prosecutor needs to put together evidence – police reports, witness statement, laboratory tests – and then share it with the defense attorney, who needs to time to review it and advise her or his client.  A court-ordered evaluation may need to be performed of the defendant, such as to decide if the defendant has an alcohol problem. 

If the defendant is considering pleading guilty rather than going to trial, there are discussions between the prosecutor and the defense counsel about what type of sentence will be agreed to, if any.  Sometimes there is a conference with the judge about that.  If the defendant enters what’s called a “blind plea,” that means the defendant pleads guilty but leaves the sentence to the judge. Both sides prepare written documents throughout the case to present their arguments to the judge.  For sentencing, the defense attorney usually gets statements from witnesses who say the defendant is a good person. The prosecutor often asks family member to prepare victim statements for the court.   All these steps take time, and most occur even if there is no need for a trial.  A trial is the part of the case most people are more familiar with from books, television, and movies.  That part of the case, if it occurs, takes even longer to prepare for.

(2)    Not much happens.  For the people sitting in the benches at the back of the courtroom, it appears nothing is happening as the case moves along.  Most of the steps described above take place outside the courtroom, and then the attorneys come to court, report what they’ve been doing, and ask for a next court date.  If not enough has been done, the judge may push them along, telling them what they need to accomplish by the following month.  It’s often hard to hear what the attorneys and the judge are saying, so from your perspective, you wait and wait, then the attorneys go in front of the judge, mumble a few sentences, and walk away.  And sometimes you don’t see even that much.  The lawyers may talk on the phone or in the hallway before seeing the judge, agree there is little or nothing to report, and get a new date without saying more than a word or two to the judge or the judge’s clerk.  The thing to remember is that even when it looks like nothing is happening, usually the case is moving toward a conclusion.  Also, as I’ll discuss more in the next post, you should be able to get specific information from the prosecutor or prosecutor’s office about what’s happening in the case and what you can expect at the next date.

Next time I’ll talk about the emotional aspect of attending hearings, including that the defendant rarely apologizes, and the resources to help you through the process.  Until then, my thoughts are with you.

Author's Note:

In honor of my parents, all royalties this year from my short story collection THE TOWER FORMERLY KNOWN AS SEARS AND TWO OTHER TALES OF URBAN HORROR will be donated to AAIM. Horror writer Carrie Green referred to the stories as “horror in pinstripes,” a description I wish I ’d thought of myself and which I’m happily adopting.

For Kindle or any laptop, smartphone or computer with the free Kindle app:

To learn more about AAIM, or make a donation in honor of someone you love, click here:


  1. Nice blog of Comparative Law and Judicial Decision Making!!!we are providing Drunk Busters system which allows good drivers to quickly and effectively report suspected DWI drivers. For More Details visit at this link:- New Mexico drunk driving

  2. Eric,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog. Sounds like a great program in NM, and I like the website. AAIM has a similar drunkbusters program for drivers to report DUI drivers in Illinois.

  3. That's the problem sometimes with our justice system, it takes time to get something done.

  4. A justice delayed is a justice denied.