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South Carolina Criminal Case Timeline

Overview

What follows is an outline of the process that a criminal case takes as it works its way through the state courts of South Carolina (many of these principles apply to federal prosecutions as well).

Investigation/Arrest
Investigation/Arrest
Police officers investigate potential crimes and decide who can be charged with those crimes. Investigations cover everything from brief traffic stops to responding to 911 calls to formal investigations involving detectives and experts. They may last a few minutes or even several years. The person the officer believes is responsible will be arrested on the scene or after an arrest warrant has been filed. Once you have been charged with a crime, you are now called a Defendant. If you have an outstanding arrest warrant, it is important to contact a lawyer immediately. A lawyer can arrange for you to voluntarily surrender yourself and avoid embarrassment or more serious repercussions. The longer you are “on the run,” the less likely you will be let out on bond pending resolution of your charges.
Investigation/Arrest
Initial Bond Setting
Initial Bond Setting
Within a short period of time from the arrest (usually the same day), a defendant will be given an initial bond setting. This is a short court proceeding to decide if a defendant should be released from jail while charges are pending. Sometimes the proceeding will take place via video or audio teleconference with the court. Some defendants hire an attorney to represent them and argue on their behalf for their release. The judge will consider a Defendant’s ties to the community, employment, criminal record, other pending charges, probation/parole status, and representation by an attorney. In some cases, judges will refuse to set bond even when they are authorized to do so. This situation is the most common in major felony cases such as armed robbery and serious domestic violence cases. Further, judges cannot set a bond for charges that potentially carry a life sentence, such as murder, criminal sexual conduct with a minor, and burglary. Bond consideration for those charges are handled by more senior judges in General Sessions court later in the process.
Initial Bond Setting
Preliminary Hearing
Preliminary Hearing
A defendant must request a preliminary hearing within 20 days of the initial bond setting. Once this request is submitted, a hearing is typically held within 3-6 weeks. The hearing's purpose is to determine if there is sufficient evidence (“probable cause”) for the case to continue. It is very beneficial to be represented by a lawyer at this hearing. Defendants are not required to attend the preliminary hearing and will not receive a bench warrant if they do not appear. These hearings are also open to the public.

The State (the prosecutor) will present testimony from the investigating police officer regarding what evidence they have to support the charges. The more formal trial rules regarding evidence are relaxed during this hearing, allowing the officer to describe the evidence without having to bring the items or witnesses with him to court. The defense attorney has an opportunity to cross-examine the officer, but cannot submit any evidence or testimony. This is not a mini-trial. It is solely for the judge to get a basic outline of the case. At the conclusion of the State’s presentation, the defense attorney can ask to the case to be dismissed if the evidence presented is insufficient. If the judge determines there is enough evidence to support the charges, the case is “bound over” (formally sent) to General Sessions court for trial.
Preliminary Hearing
Initial Appearance
Initial Appearance
Approximately 45 days after an arrest, the defendant will have an initial appearance, typically referred to as a “roll call.” The sole purpose of this court date is to see if the defendant has hired an attorney or been appointed a public defender. If not, a second appearance will be scheduled 45 days later to make sure the defendant has an attorney or public defender. If a defendant already has an attorney prior to either appearance date, they can request to be excused from the hearing.
Initial Appearance
Indictment
Indictment
We’ve passed the first barrier for the State to prosecute charges at the probable cause hearing, and now we approach the second at the indictment phase. An indictment (pronounced “in-DITE-ment”) is document that lists all the criminal charges against a defendant. Each crime is called a “count.” While the case is pending, the State will assemble a “grand jury” (public citizens serving jury duty), present them with the evidence, and ask them to approve or disapprove of the charges on the indictment. If they disapprove, the indictment is rejected (called a “no bill”) and the charges are usually dropped. If they approve, the indictment is filed and the case proceeds further to trial. The threshold for indictment is fairly low, leading to the popular saying “You can indict a ham sandwich.” Neither the defendant nor his lawyer are present during the grand jury hearing.
Indictment
Discovery a.k.a. Rule 5
Discovery
A defendant is entitled to copies of all the evidence that will be used against him under Rule 5 of the South Carolina Rules of Criminal Procedure. This evidence can include reports, videos, phone records, and forensic data. The process of requesting and exchanging that information is called “Discovery.” A defendant or his attorney must submit a written request for this material to the prosecutor. It may take weeks, months, or even years for the State to turn over this evidence, particularly if the evidence is new.
Discovery a.k.a. Rule 5
Plea Offers
Plea Offers
The State may choose to extend a plea offer to the defendant. If the defendant accepts the plea offer, the case will be scheduled for a hearing to finalize the acceptance. If he pleads guilty, the defendant is usually sentenced immediately. Any jail or prison time or probation period will start immediately as well. If the plea is rejected, the defendant may have to go before the judge who will make sure the defendant understands the terms of plea and the potential consequences of going to trial before accepting the rejection.
Plea Offers
Trial
Trial
A trial is a court proceeding where both sides present evidence to a jury who will give a final verdict. The prosecutor must convince the jury the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant does not have to prove anything. However, most attorneys will work to convince the jury the defendant is innocent and point out holes in the the prosecutor’s case.
Trial
Trial: Jury Selection
The trial begins with selecting a jury. A group of 40-80 people are brought into the courtroom and asked questions about themselves (called “voir dire”) to be sure they can be fair to both sides. The prosecutor and the defense can ask the judge to remove certain jurors from the pool if their answers seem biased. If the judge agrees, those jurors will be struck from the jury pool. In addition, both the prosecutor and the defense have a limited number of people they can remove without the judge’s approval (“peremptory strikes”). Jurors who are not removed by the judge or the attorneys are seated in the jury box one at a time until there are 12 jurors and 2-4 alternate jurors. Alternate jurors can take the place of a regular juror in the case of illness, family emergency or some other situation that prevents them from completing their service.
Trial: Pre-Trial Motions
The next step is for the judge to rule on any motions filed by the State or the defense that relate to what can be done during the trial in front of the jury. An example of a pre-trial motion would be a request to keep the jury from hearing about certain evidence that is irrelevant and prejudicial, like other unrelated criminal activity or embarrassing items found at the crime scene. Because these motions involve what the jurors should be presented with, the jury is not present for pre-trial motions.
Trial: Opening Statements
After pre-trial motions are complete, the jury returns to the courtroom and each side gives an opening statement. An opening statement is a speech where each attorney gives the jury their side of the story and what they expect the evidence will show or point out a lack of evidence. No actual evidence is presented during these statements.
Trial: The State's Case
Each side takes turns presenting their evidence during the trial, and the State goes first. The defense has an opportunity to “cross-examine” (question) each of the State’s witnesses about their testimony. The State's case can hours, days, or even weeks to present. In a typical case, it takes 1-3 days. Once the State has presented all of its evidence/witnesses, it “rests” (announces the case has been fully presented to the jury).
Trial: Directed Verdict
After the State has completed presenting its case, the defense lawyer has the opportunity to move for a directed verdict. A motion for directed verdict is when the defense lawyer asks the Judge to find the defendant not-guilty based on the State’s failure to prevent sufficient evidence to convict. The State does not have to present much evidence to get past this stage, but on occasion the State might completely forget to present evidence regarding one or more of the charges. In such cases, the defendant is entitled to be found not-guilty immediately, without the case even being considered by the jury. Although directed verdicts are rarely granted, seasoned criminal defense attorneys will always make this motion, because there is no downside to asking for it.
Trial: The Defense's Case
Now that the State has presented its entire case, the defendant has the opportunity to present his own case, if he chooses. During this phase, the defense lawyer can present any relevant evidence or testimony he chooses. He can show the jury documents or other physical items that may help the defense. He can present alibi witnesses, or other witnesses who contradict the testimony that the jury heard during the State’s case. He can present expert witnesses who will contradict the State’s theory of the case, and attack the conclusions of the State’s forensic experts. He can present character witnesses who will tell the jury not to believe the allegations against the defendant. Lastly, and most importantly, he can present his client’s testimony. Once the defense lawyer has presented all of the evidence, he will announce that the defense “rests,” which means he has completed presenting his case.
Trial: The State's Rebuttal Evidence
After the defense has presented its case, the State has one final opportunity to present any “rebuttal” witnesses that it chooses. This opportunity is limited only to evidence or testimony that directly rebuts information that the defendant presented during his case. The State does not always present rebuttal evidence, but it always has the option to do so, if the defense presented any evidence.
Trial: Closing Arguments
During this phase of the trial, both parties speak directly to the jury, and they are allowed to summarize all of the evidence and testimony that was presented during the trial, and argue to the jury why they should find the defendant guilty or not-guilty. Each side will highlight the evidence that is most favorable to their case, and argue that the evidence requires a particular verdict from the jury. The solicitor will argue that the defendant should be convicted of each crime alleged, and will discuss the evidence to support each charge. The defense lawyer will argue that the solicitor has failed to prove one or more of the charges, and that the jury should therefore find the defendant “not guilty.” (Note: the defense lawyer may choose to admit that the defendant is guilty of some charges, but ask the jury to find their client not-guilty on other charges. For example, if the defendant is accused of possessing a stolen firearm and committing a murder with it, the defense lawyer may tell the jury to convict his client of possessing a stolen firearm, but argue that he did not commit the murder, and that they should find him not-guilty of murder).
Trial: Jury Instructions and Deliberations
After closing arguments, the judge reads a long list of instructions to the jury about the law and how they should analyze the case to reach a decision. The jurors then go into a private room to “deliberate” (discuss what they think of the evidence and attempt to reach a verdict). The jury can send notes to the courtroom asking to clarify instructions or see pieces of evidence again. Every single juror must agree with the final verdict. If they cannot all agree, they will let the judge know that they are deadlocked. Usually, the judge will tell them to keep trying to come to a decision. If they still cannot (a “hung jury”), the judge will declare a mistrial. The State can drop the charges or choose to try the case again later with a different jury.
Trial: Verdict and Sentencing
Once the jury reaches a verdict, they send a note to the judge and everyone is brought back into the courtroom. The jury must announce whether they have found the defendant guilty or not guilty for each charge. If the defendant is found not guilty of all charges, the case is over and the defendant is released immediately or after completing jail processing. If the defendant is found guilty on one or more counts, the judge usually conducts a sentencing hearing immediately. Each side can argue and present evidence/witnesses for what they feel is an appropriate sentence. The judge will then announce the sentence. If the sentence includes jail or prison time, the defendant will be taken into custody immediately. Any time served in jail waiting for trial is credited to the final sentence. For example, if the case took 2 years to get to trial, and the judge sentences the defendant to 4 years in prison after his trial, the defendant will be considered to have already served 2 years of that 4-year sentence.