Every County in Virginia has two criminal trial courts, which are the General District Court (or Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court) and the Circuit Court.
The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court [JDR] is devoted to family issues and children under the age of 18. It has basically the same authority as a General District Court and it is on the same level of authority as the General District Court.
Misdemeanors are tried in General District Courts and JDR Courts and the results can be appealed in the Circuit Courts.
Felony charges start out in General District Courts or JDR Courts but only as preliminary hearings. The General District Court Judge decides if there is enough evidence [the standard is only 51%] to send the case to Circuit Court.
Once the case gets to Circuit Court, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Sometimes, at the preliminary hearing [before the case is called by the judge], the prosecutor and the defense attorney [if the defendant is interested in a “plea bargain,”] will work out an agreement whereby the defendant, in exchange for waiving his preliminary, will have the charge reduced or, if there are a number of charges, have one or more of them nolle prossed. This saves the prosecutor time to undertake more serious charges and it is advantageous to the defendant if the evidence against the defendant is overwhelming.
If a plea bargain is not reached, the defense attorney and prosecutor will go forward with the preliminary hearing. Typically, the defense does not put on any evidence. The sole purpose of the preliminary hearing is to get a better understanding of the evidence against the defendant and not to reveal the defendant’s case.
If the General District Court Judge certifies that the defendant’s case should go to the Grand Jury [most preliminary hearings result in certification], the case goes before a Grand Jury at which only the prosecution appears.
The purpose of the Grand Jury is to determine [again, because this was done in General District Court] that there is enough evidence [again, 51%] to indict the defendant for the crime charged.
An indictment is a piece of paper that tells the defense exactly what charge the defendant will face in Circuit Court.
The day after the Grand Jury meets, the Circuit Court holds term day, which is when everyone indicted and their attorney meets in court with the prosecutor’s office and picks the date on which the defendant will either plead guilty to the offense for which she or he is charged or will plead not guilty and have either a judge trial or a jury trial.