What Is the Trial Process in Federal Court?

If you or a loved one is facing federal charges, it’s likely that you are feeling worried, overwhelmed, and unsure of what the future holds. The legal process can be long and confusing, and many people who are accused of crimes don’t understand the process. To help provide clarity, our federal criminal defense attorneys in Raleigh are sharing a step-by-step look at the trial process in federal court.

Pre-Trial and Arraignment in Federal Court

After you’ve received a target letter or have been charged with a crime, you will have your initial appearance before the judge. During this court appearance, you can expect:

  • Charges to be read against you, the defendant, and what the maximum possible penalty you are facing is.
  • To be asked about legal representation, whether you plan to represent yourself, hire an attorney, or need an attorney appointed to your case from the Federal Public Defender’s Office.
  • The Assistant US Attorney will state whether they will seek for you to stay in custody until the resolution of your case or if you should be released. If they request you stay in custody, a detention hearing will be scheduled in which the judge determines if you will be released or remain in custody.

The next appearance is your arraignment, in which you, the defendant, will hear the charges and given a formal copy of them. During this time, you will enter a plea to the charges brought by the Department of Justice. If you and your attorney have negotiated a plea bargain with the US Attorney, you may enter a guilty plea during this time, but if you and your attorney plan on moving forward to trial, a not guilty plea will be entered.

Between Arraignment and Trial

After your arraignment, the next steps of the process are determined by your plea. If you plead guilty, your sentencing hearing will be scheduled, though if a plea bargain was struck, you know what to expect. However, if you plead not guilty to the charges, the trial process begins, which we outline below.

Discovery and Motion Practice

A preliminary hearing may be scheduled to determine if the prosecutor has enough evidence to charge the defendant. They will call witnesses and introduce evidence, and your defense attorney can cross-examine witnesses. At the end of the preliminary hearing, the judge will conclude if there is enough evidence established to believe you, the defendant committed the crime. If the judge finds there is no probable cause, charges are dismissed, but if they do find in favor of the prosecutor’s case, a trial will be scheduled.

Between the hearing and trial, pre-trial motions are filed by the prosecuting attorney and defense, often requesting to dismiss charges, suppress or allow evidence, or change the venue. The judge must hear each motion and decide the outcome, each one playing a significant role in the likely outcome of the trial.

Facing Trial in Federal Court

After all motions have been filed and decided, the trial proceedings begin. Most trials are heard by a jury, though the defendant can choose a bench trial, in which the case is heard by the judge alone.

Voir Dire

Commonly referred to as jury selection, voir dire is the process by which a pool of selected jurors are questioned and selected to hear the case. The court may excuse potential jurors who are unable to fulfill the role of a juror, such as due to bias or the inability to impose certain penalties.

The Trial Itself

Once the jury is selected and the trial is scheduled to begin, it follows a very specific structure:

  • Opening statement of the prosecutor in which they outline their case;
  • Opening statement of the defense attorney (though they have the option of giving the statement at the beginning of when they call their witnesses and present their case);
  • Presenting evidence, first the prosecutor, then the defense;
  • The prosecutor has the opportunity to rebut the defense’s case;
  • Closing arguments, first the prosecutor, then the defense.

Once the closing arguments are completed, the judge will provide instructions to the jury who will then retire to hear the case.


The jury is tasked with deciding the case in closed chambers. There is no set time limit for them to return a verdict, but all 12 jurors must be in agreement, deciding either guilty or not guilty, otherwise a mistrial may be declared.

Once they reach a decision, the prosecutors and defense are brought into the courtroom, then the jury is brought to announce the verdict.

Sentencing in Federal Court

If a not guilty verdict is announced, you, the defendant are free to go. If the jury returns a guilty verdict, a sentencing hearing will be scheduled. Often a probation officer assigned by the court will investigate factors that may be helpful to the judge to make a decision, including social history, prior criminal record, and the outcome for the victim. The victim may also prepare a statement to be presented to the judge or address the court. Once all statements are made, the judge will impose a sentence to be carried out.

Schedule a Free Consultation with a Federal Criminal Attorney Today

If you are facing federal charges in the Eastern District of North Carolina, reach out to Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh. Our experienced attorneys are on your side to help you secure favorable outcomes and will work hard to advocate on your behalf throughout the legal process. To speak with an attorney 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, call us at (919) 845-6688 or fill out the form below to get started.