Arizona Judicial Branch

Criminal Law

Criminal Code Sentencing Charts

Criminal cases involve the commission of acts that are prohibited by law and are punishable by probation, fines, imprisonment — even death. The attorney representing the state, county or municipal government that formally accuses an individual of committing a crime is the prosecutor. The party charged with the crime is the defendant.

Steps in a Criminal Case

1. Arrest
A person is arrested by a law enforcement officer who either observes a crime or has a warrant for arrest when probable cause exists that a person committed a crime. When a person is arrested, that person must be brought before a judge for an initial appearance within 24 hours of being arrested or must be released.

2. Initial Appearance 
At the initial appearance, the judge determines the defendant’s name and address, informs the defendant of the charges and of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. The judge appoints an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one, and sets the conditions for release from jail.

3. Preliminary Hearing
If a preliminary hearing is held, the judge hears evidence and testimony from witnesses called by the prosecuting attorney and the defendant’s attorney. If the judge determines there is enough evidence to believe the defendant probably committed the crime, the defendant is held for trial in superior court, and an arraignment date is set.

4. Arraignment 
At the arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest. If the defendant enters a not guilty plea, the judge will set a trial date. If the defendant enters a guilty plea or declares no contest to the charges, the judge will set a date to sentence the defendant for the crime.

5. Trial
Opening Statements
The defendant has the right to a trial either before a jury or a judge. When the court is ready for the trial to begin, opening statements are made by both sides. In a criminal case, the prosecuting attorney speaks first.

To begin, the attorney gives an overview of the facts to be presented. The opposing attorney may present the same type of opening comment or may reserve the opening statement until later in the trial when that side of the case begins. Either attorney may choose not to give an opening statement.


The prosecuting attorney will begin the case by calling witnesses and asking them questions. This is direct examination.

Witnesses in all trials take an oath or affirmation that what they say in court is true. All trial evidence, including testimony and physical evidence such as documents, weapons or articles of clothing, must be acceptable as defined by the Arizona Rules of Evidence before it can be admitted into evidence and shown to the jury. The judge decides what evidence and testimony is admissible under the rules.

In a criminal trial, the prosecuting attorney presents evidence and testimony of witnesses to try to prove the defendant committed the crime. The attorney for the defendant may present evidence and witnesses to show that the defendant did not commit the crime or to create a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. The defendant is considered innocent of the crime charged until proven guilty.

When the prosecution’s side has completed its questioning of a witness, the defense is allowed to cross-examine the witness on any relevant matter.

After cross-examination, the attorney who originally called the witness may ask additional questions of the witness to clarify something touched on in the cross-examination. This is redirect examination. The judge may allow an opportunity for the opposing attorney to recross examine.

When the plaintiff or prosecution has called all the witnesses for its side of the case and presented all its evidence, that side rests its case.

At this point, the defendant’s attorney may ask the court to decide the case in the defendant’s favor because the plaintiff or prosecuting attorney did not present sufficient evidence to prove the case against the defendant. This is called a judgment of acquittal in a criminal case. 

If the judge agrees that there is not enough evidence to rule against the defendant, the judge rules in favor of the defendant and the case ends.

If a judgment of acquittal is not requested, or if the request is denied, the defense may present evidence for its side of the case. The attorney for the defense often waits until this point in the trial to make an opening statement.

The defense may choose not to present evidence, as it is not required to do so. Remember, the defendant in a criminal case is not required to prove innocence. The prosecution is required to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the defense does present a case and call witnesses, the same rules and procedures that governed presentation of evidence by the prosecution now apply to evidence presented by the defense. 

At the conclusion of the defendant’s case, the prosecutor may present additional information to respond to evidence offered by the defense. Following this, the defense is given another opportunity to present additional evidence on the defendant’s behalf.

Closing Arguments

When both sides have presented their evidence, each side may make closing arguments. Closing arguments are similar to opening statements. They provide an opportunity for the attorneys to address the judge or jury a final time. The plaintiff/prosecutor speaks first, usually summarizing the evidence that has been presented, and highlighting items most beneficial to the prosecution. The attorney for the defendant speaks next. The defense attorney will usually summarize the strongest points of the defendant’s case and point out flaws in the case presented by the prosecutor. The prosecutor then has one last opportunity to speak.

Instructing the Jury

After closing arguments in a jury trial, the judge reads instructions to the jurors explaining the law that applies to the case. Jury members are required to follow these instructions in reaching a verdict. 

Jury Deliberations

The jury goes to a special jury room and elects a foreman to lead the discussion. Jurors must consider all the evidence, review the facts of the case, and reach a verdict. When the jury makes its decision, the court is called back into session. 


The foreman presents a written verdict to the judge, and either the judge or court clerk reads the jury’s verdict to the court. The court then enters a judgment based on the verdict, and the jury is released from duty.

If found not guilty, the defendant in a criminal case is released immediately. If the defendant is found guilty, a date is set for sentencing.


A sentencing hearing is scheduled to determine the punishment a convicted defendant will receive. The judge hears testimony from the prosecution and the defense regarding the punishment that each side feels the convicted defendant should receive. 

In Arizona, the Legislature has established a range of sentences for different crimes, and the judge must impose a sentence within the range outlined by law. The options may include probation, fines, imprisonment or a combination of these punishments. In some cases, the death penalty can be imposed.


A convicted defendant may appeal. In a case where the death penalty is imposed, an automatic appeal is filed with the Supreme Court. In all other criminal cases, the appeal goes to the court of appeals.