From Your District Attorney
The criminal justice system can often times be a complex and confusing one for victims and witnesses. This page has been designed to answer some of the most frequent questions posed by victims and witnesses in criminal cases. If you have additional questions, not answered in this web site, please call my office and we will try to assist you. Our goal is to represent your interests and protect your rights to the best of our ability.
Criminal District Attorney
- How are crimes classified in Texas? Texas law classifies criminal offenses into two broad categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Felony offenses are the more serious and involve possible commitment to the Institutional or State Jail Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Misdemeanor cases involve possible fine and/or imprisonment in the county jail.
- What should I do when a crime happens? First, call the police or sheriff's office and make a full report. In most cases, a law enforcement officer will meet with you in person to obtain important details.
- How does my case get to your office for prosecution? Local law enforcement agencies refer the results of their investigations to my office. An assistant in my office is always available to assist law enforcement agencies at any stage in their investigation.
- What is a complaint? A complaint is a legal document charging a specific person with the violation of a criminal law. It must be sworn to by someone who knows the facts of the crime charged, either by direct knowledge or through investigation. A complaint is generally necessary before a peace officer can obtain a warrant of arrest authorizing him or her to apprehend a person accused of a crime.
- What is a warrant of arrest? A warrant of arrest is an order signed by a judge, authorizing a peace officer to arrest a person charged with having committed a crime.
- What happens to the accused? The person accused of the crime is now called the defendant. Soon after arrest by a peace officer, the defendant is taken before a judge who informs the defendant of the reason he has been arrested, and of the facts contained in the complaint. The judge is required to set an amount of bail and to advise the defendant of his rights. Unless the defendant can post bail in the amount set by the judge, he remains in custody and is normally transferred to the county jail to await further action in the case.
- What is the purpose of bail? Bail is allowed in virtually all cases, including felonies. The amount of bail is set by the judge. Its sole legal purpose is to guarantee the defendant's appearance in court for later proceedings. The judge is required to consider not only the seriousness of the offense charged against the defendant, but also the defendant's ability to raise money to make bail, in setting the amount. Bail may not be set so high as to punish a defendant by keeping him in jail pending his trial.
- What if someone threatens or tries to intimidate me into dropping charges I have filed? Such a person is obstructing justice and may be guilty of a felony offense called "retaliation." Call the law enforcement agency which investigated the case originally or contact the assistant criminal district attorney who is handling the case in my office. Do so as soon as possible so that the threats can be documented and action taken to prevent reoccurrence.
- How is a case processed in the District Attorney's Office? After a felony case is referred to my office it is presented to a grand jury. If the grand jury indicts the case it is then assigned to an assistant criminal district attorney and an investigator in my office who will handle the case in district court. After a misdemeanor case is referred to my office it is immediately assigned to an assistant criminal district attorney who will handle the case in a county court at law.
- What if a defense attorney contacts me about the case? You may discuss the case with him, but we would like to know in advance if you plan to do so, and we would like to have someone from our staff present when you do. You are not required to discuss the case with a representative of the defense and may decline to do so. Please remember that the attorney representing the defendant is performing a legal duty when he investigates the case, but also remember that what you say can damage our case if taken in the wrong context. If you wish, you may simply refer the defense attorney to our office for any information he wants and decline to discuss the case with him.
- Does the judge appoint investigators for the defense in criminal cases? In some cases, private investigators assist defense attorneys in case preparation. If the defendant is indigent, the judge may appoint an attorney and an investigator to aid the defendant. However, in no case will the investigator be working for the judge; he will report his investigation to the defense attorney, and it may be used to damage our case in trial. Require anyone who claims to be investigating "for the judge" or "for the court" to show identification and be sure to examine it closely. Call our office before you talk about the case if you have any doubts. You are under no legal duty to discuss the case with a defense investigator.
- What is a grand jury? A grand jury is a body of twelve citizens who consider whether indictments should be returned in felony cases. Two grand juries meet weekly in Galveston County. Grand jurors are nominated by Grand Jury Commissioners appointed by a district judge. The district attorney has no control over the selection process. In addition, a grand jury can be selected randomly from the voter registration rolls of the county in the same manner that trial juries are selected. Grand jury proceedings are not open to the public, and witnesses take an oath of secrecy before testifying.
- What does a grand jury do? Unless a defendant waives an indictment, Texas law requires action by the grand jury before a felony case can be filed in district court. If the grand jury believes that there is sufficient evidence to prove that a person has committed a felony, it votes to issue what is called a "true bill," or indictment. At least nine grand jurors must vote in favor of an indictment, or the case is "no-billed," which terminates the case. The district attorney assists the grand jury in hearing evidence and preparing indictments, but the actual deliberations on cases are secret and only the grand jurors are present when voting is in progress.
- How are witnesses called for trial? Witnesses are notified by subpoena when and where to appear, and what, if anything, to bring with them to court. Witnesses for the prosecution usually receive their subpoenas more than a week prior to the trial setting.
- I have cooperated fully with the police; why am I being subpoenaed? Occasionally, witnesses feel offended that they should be "ordered" to appear in court, which is what a subpoena does. We issue subpoenas for all witnesses because our law provides that we cannot have a case postponed, despite the illness or incapacitation of a witness, unless that witness has been served a subpoena. We issue the subpoena to protect our case and your rights, in the unlikely event that you or some other witness is incapacitated at the time of trial.
- What should I do after I receive the subpoena? No action is required on your part after you receive the subpoena, other than appearing in court on the date and at the time stated on the subpoena. Please note that all of our subpoenas instruct the witness to check with our office before reporting to the courthouse. This may prevent an unnecessary trip to the courthouse in case of a last-minute change in the trial schedule.
- What should I wear to Court? Please dress neatly and conservatively when making an appearance in court. Your manner of dress can have an impact upon jurors who listen to your testimony and who may be called upon to determine facts.
- What is an examining trial? An examining trial is a hearing before a judge to determine whether probable cause exists to send a felony case on to the grand jury. In Texas, an examining trial is not held unless demanded by the defendant. Once the grand jury has returned an indictment, the defendant loses the right to an examining trial. If such a hearing is set in your case, you will be notified of the date and time and asked to appear, if your testimony is necessary.
- What is a pretrial hearing? After a felony case has been considered by a grand jury and an indictment returned, the case will be scheduled for a pretrial hearing. At the pretrial hearing the defendant and his attorney usually advise the judge whether the defendant wants a trial or will plead guilty, and if a trial is desired, whether a jury is required. Certain motions concerning legal issues may be heard at a pretrial hearing. Occasionally, a witness may be needed in a pretrial hearing, and if your presence is required, you will be notified well in advance of the setting.
- Why do some cases get dismissed? If the assistant criminal district attorney handling a case determines that there is not sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction, he may file a motion with the judge asking that the case be dismissed. This action is taken only after the case has been completely investigated, and normally after the police have exhausted all avenues for obtaining additional evidence. The judge may grant the motion to dismiss if he or she is satisfied that the case cannot be proven in a trial.
- What happens at trial? In a trial, the criminal district attorney presents the case for the State, attempting to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime as charged. The defendant may present his or her side of the case, or may present no case at all. The jury (if one has been impaneled) or the judge must decide whether the State's case has been proved by legally-sufficient evidence. If the defendant is found guilty, our law provides for a second stage of trial at which the defendant's punishment, within the range authorized by law, is fixed by either the jury or a judge. The defendant is permitted to determine whether he wants his punishment set by the judge or a jury.
- What do I do at trial? As a witness for the State you have an important part in the trial. The truth of your testimony, the manner in which you give it, and the appearance you make while on the witness stand and in the courtroom are all factors which may be weighed by the jury or judge in deciding the case. You will be questioned by the criminal district attorney, and then "cross-examined" by the attorney for the defendant. During cross-examination, witnesses sometimes feel that their personal motive for testifying is under attack, but the process is not meant to demean you, nor as a personal attack upon you. The defense attorney is charged by law with representing his client well, and this often involves bringing close scrutiny to bear upon the testimony of others. If you are concerned about the trial procedures, you may contact the assistant criminal district attorney handling the case and he/she will answer your questions. A pretrial conference with witnesses is usually scheduled prior to the trial date.
- When can I have my property returned? Property which has been stolen during the commission of an offense can often be restored to the owner prior to the trial. However, there are times this cannot be accomplished, particularly if the property is currency or where it in some manner directly identifies the perpetrator of the offense (i.e. it had fingerprints on it, etc.). Contact the agency that investigated the case or the district attorney's office to determine whether your property may be returned to you. Property retained and introduced into evidence at the trial can be restored after trial or at the conclusion of any appeal. Contact the assistant criminal district attorney who prosecuted the case in this situation.
- Can I be compensated for my efforts as a witness? As a general rule, Texas law does not authorize any compensation for witnesses testifying in criminal matters. Exceptions are made in cases where the witness is from outside the state or from outside the county in which the trial is held, in which case travel expenses and a per diem are allowed.
- What is a plea bargain? Will you plea bargain my case? The term "plea bargain" is unfortunate in that it is misleading to the public and implies that the defendant and his attorney have managed to have his charges reduced or receives a light sentence. A plea bargain is an agreement between the attorney representing the State and the defendant and his attorney that the State will recommend a specific punishment in the case, if the defendant will enter a plea of guilty. The agreement as to punishment is not binding upon the judge, who may impose any punishment within the range authorized by law. There are advantages to both the State and the defendant in arriving at such an agreement in many cases, but you may rest assured that we will not negotiate such a plea for less punishment than a jury would likely set under the facts of your particular case. The Victim Impact Statement will be considered by the assistant criminal district attorney in entering into any plea bargain agreement. The assistant criminal district attorney will be available to answer any questions you may have concerning plea bargaining in your case.
- Can a defendant appeal his conviction to a higher court? A defendant can appeal his conviction to an appellate court in hopes of having his conviction reversed. An appellate court reviews only the typed record of what happened in the trial court. Witnesses do not appear and testify at the appellate level. In many instances a defendant may remain free on bond while the appeal is pending.
- If a defendant is sentenced to prison who decides if he will be paroled? The Pardon and Paroles Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice makes this decision. They have established a Victim Services Office to address the needs of the victim in relation to the parole process. Correspondence may be sent to Victims Service Office, T.D.C.J., Pardons and Paroles Division, P O Box 13401, Capital Station, Austin, Texas 78711 or by calling toll free 1-800-84VICTIM.
- Do sexual assault victims have to pay the cost of a medical examination? No. This cost will be paid by the law enforcement agency that requested the examination. The agency is not required, however, to pay any costs of treatment for injuries you may have received.
- What is a victim impact statement form? This form is distributed to the victim, guardian of a victim, or close relative of a deceased victim of a violent crime (ex. sexual assault, aggravated assault). The form does not apply to the victim of a property crime (ex. burglary, theft). This form should be completed by you promptly and returned to my office so that it may be reviewed by the assistant criminal district attorney assigned to the case and presented to the court at the proper time. It is also forwarded to Pardons and Paroles Division or the Community Supervision and Corrections Department (Probation Department).
- If I am the victim of a violent crime, may I receive compensation for expenses if have incurred? You may make an application under the Crime Victims Compensation Act to compensate you for reasonable medical, drug, counseling and rehabilitation expenses. Additional expenses are also covered. Please talk with the Victims Assistance Coordinator (409) 770-5124 at the District Attorney's Office for more details.
- What Can I do to see that the defendant pays restitution to me for my financial loses? Give the assistant criminal district attorney an accounting of what your financial losses are. Back it up by attaching bills or invoices that show you incurred this expense. The court may order that restitution be paid to you as a condition of the defendant's probation or eventual parole from prison.
- Can the victim of a violent crime make an oral statement to the Court and the defendant? At the conclusion of a trial, a victim, close relative of a deceased victim, or guardian of a victim is allowed to appear in person to present to the court and to the defendant a statement of the person's views about the offense, the defendant, and the effect of the offense on the victim. This right applies only to the victim of a violent crime.
- Who can inform me of social service agencies in the area that may be of help to me? Call the Victim Assistance Coordinator at 409-770-5124 with the District Attorney's Office. The coordinator keeps such a list and will be glad to refer you to a helpful agency. You can also visit our Crime Victim Information Page for the Crime Victim Impact instructions. Most of these agencies can be viewed under "VICTIM RESOURCES" on the HOME PAGE.