Felony charges in Virginia have two stages - the General District Court stage, and in many cases, the Circuit Court stage. Felonies proceed first to a preliminary (probable cause) hearing in General District Court. At this hearing, the Commonwealth must only produce enough evidence to convince the judge that there is probable cause for the case to go forward. This is a check on the system to ensure that false accusations and mistaken identity case do not proceed. However, it is a very low standard, and even in the case of an innocent client, most cases survive a preliminary hearing.
Preliminary hearings are useful for a defense attorney because they are a good preview of the Commonwealth's evidence. While the Commonwealth need not, and does not, present all of its witnesses or evidence, they usually must put on their most important and crucial witness or evidence. At almost every preliminary hearing, a court reporter is necessary, in order to impeach witnesses later in Circuit Court if possible. Most of the time, an experienced attorney will advise her client not to testify at the preliminary hearing, as you have the right to remain silent and not incriminate yourself, and there is usually nothing to gain at this point.If the judge finds there is probable cause for the case to proceed, she will "certify" it to the Grand Jury. Later, in a secret proceeding, the Commonwealth will present the case again to the grand jury, who will then decide whether to issue an Indictment, which is a formal charge.
Once you are indicted, your case proceeds upstairs to Circuit Court. For your felony trial in Circuit Court, you have the option of choosing whether you wish a jury or a judge to hear your case. This is an important decision that should not be taken lightly, and I will guide you through these decisions until you are thoroughly familiar with the law, the risks and benefits, and comfortable making a decision about how you wish to proceed. Jury trials are much more complex and require a great investment on the part of you and your counsel. In Virginia, if a jury finds you guilty, that same jury will decide upon your sentence. If you choose a bench trial, and the judge finds you guilty, the judge imposes your sentence.