What to Expect in Court


The legal system is an entirely new world for many victims thrust into the complicated process. NCVAN can help prepare victims to better understand and navigate the process. Click the links below for more information.

What to

Expect FROM 

Law Enforcement

What to

Expect FROM THE 

District Attorney


Autopsy Report










What to Expect in Court?

Homicide is the most serious crime a person can commit. Due to the seriousness of homicide, it can take at least a year, most likely longer, before a court trial is scheduled. This process can be frustrating for homicide survivors/co-victims.

There are many processes and procedures that must be followed and many motions that must be filed and heard before the trial can begin. The offender (or referred to as the defendant at this stage) has rights as required by the U.S. Constitution. The overarching reason for defendant rights is to guarantee fair proceedings when people are threatened by loss of life, liberty, or property by the government. While this can be extremely frustrating for the homicide survivors/co-victims it is necessary.

What to Expect from Law Enforcement?

The state of North Carolina defines murder as: “The willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another.”


This time can be the most daunting and cold feeling for homicide survivors/co-victims as they attempt to understand the jargon and the investigative processes and procedures.


Though there will be information Law Enforcement cannot share with you, they will communicate with you to the extent allowed by policy and procedure.


Working with Law Enforcement


Though it may seem challenging at times, please keep in mind that police want to find the person(s) responsible for your loved one’s death.


Here are some common challenges that loved ones might experience with law enforcement:


  • “The Investigator is not communicating with me.” Often, they are limited in what they can share in preserving the integrity of the investigation.

  • “Progress is painfully slow.” The legal processes can be slow as evidence must be obtained legally in order to prosecute the crime successfully. Evidence processing and testing can take months to years due to various factors.

  • “The Investigator is unfeeling toward me and my family.” Law enforcement must remain objective and often comes across as cold. Investigators cannot afford to become emotional as that will hinder their capacity to do their job.

  • “The police won’t share the reports with me, and I want to read them.” All police reports, photos, and documents are considered evidence and cannot be shared. HOWEVER, homicide survivors/co-victims have the right to obtain the specifically assigned case report (or incident report) number to have it for reference when contacting the assigned investigator.

  • “My loved one had personal property on them when they were killed, and I can’t get it back.” These items are considered evidence and may never be returned to homicide survivors/co-victims. This is following state laws on evidence preservation.

If you have any further questions or need assistance when trying to navigate the world of law enforcement, please contact NCVAN’s main number to speak with a victim advocate.

919.831.2857 or 800.348.5068


*Investigator and Detective are often used interchangeably. Different agencies can have different titles for sworn officers assigned to their specified duties.


What to Expect from the District Attorney?

Just as working with law enforcement can be overwhelming, it can be challenging for the homicide survivor/co-victim to understand the legalese and prosecution process.


The term District Attorney or Prosecutor can be used interchangeably. Essentially this is the State of North Carolina working on behalf of your loved one to ensure that the person responsible for your loved one’s death is held accountable in the court of law and punished by the State.


However, you should know that the prosecutor is not considered the attorney for your loved one or you. The prosecutor is the attorney for the STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA; therefore, the case will be referred to as “State of NC vs. Defendant.” Homicide survivors/co-victims have the right to hire an attorney to safeguard their rights as homicide survivors/co-victims. Homicide survivors/co-victims, who have limited English proficiency, have the right to request an interpreter.


If an arrest has been made in the case, homicide survivors/co-victims should expect to be contacted by the District Attorney’s office assigned to the case to discuss prosecution. You may be contacted by the “Victim Witness Coordinator” or the “Victim Advocate.” They work on behalf of the District Attorney’s office and serve as a liaison between you and the District Attorney. You may be contacted directly by the District Attorney (DA) or Assistant District Attorney (ADA). Keep in mind that every office does things a little bit differently, but they all work with the same goal in mind: SUCCESSFUL PROSECUTION.


To learn who the District Attorney is in your area of the state, visit their website NC Conference of District Attorneys.


What is an Autopsy Report and Where to Obtain One?

In North Carolina, whenever a person is taken by homicide, an autopsy will be performed to determine the exact cause of death.


The North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) will perform the autopsy. The OCME investigates all deaths in North Carolina due to injury or violence, as well as natural deaths that are suspicious, unusual, or unattended by a medical professional.

If you wish to obtain the autopsy report go to N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and select “Document Request.”


Tips for Observing Proceedings


The Victim/Witness Legal Assistant in the District Attorney’s office prosecuting your case can help prepare you for the courtroom. The following are some general guidelines that you may find helpful in the courtroom:

  • Maintain a serious and dignified manner in and around the courthouse and throughout the trial. Dress appropriately.

  • Do not discuss the case in the halls, restrooms, or anywhere that an ally of the defense or a juror may overhear. Most district attorney’s offices have a special waiting area for victims and witnesses. Check with the Victim/Witness Legal Assistant for location and information.

  • Never speak to a judge or juror, unless you are in the courtroom and testifying under oath – or unless the judge specifically asks you a question in the courtroom. If you come in contact with a judge or juror in the hall, elevator or during a recess or lunch break, do not speak to them.

  • You may see the defendant, for the first time since the crime, in the courtroom. Try to prepare yourself for the emotional impact of this encounter. It may upset you to hear the defendant say “not guilty.” Sometimes these are the first words that victims have heard the defendant speak.

  • Prepare yourself to hear upsetting and graphic testimony.

  • If you are the family or loved one of someone who was murdered, you may hear horrifying details of the crime for the first time. Ask the District Attorney to fully review the details of your loved one’s death prior to the trial.

  • If you find yourself becoming extremely upset during the trial, quietly leave the courtroom.

  • If you have any questions or concerns during the trial, write them down and give them to the district attorney or Victim/Witness Legal Assistant. Don’t interrupt or whisper during the trial.

  • If the press is covering the trial, you may be approached and questioned by reporters. You should refrain from answering any questions or making any comments until after the trial is over. Be polite and refer them to the District Attorney.

  • Prepare yourself to hear the verdict, which could be a highly emotional time for you and your family.



Tips for Testifying Victims/Survivors

The Victim/Witness Legal Assistant in the District Attorney’s office prosecuting your case can help prepare you for the courtroom. The following are some helpful tips to remember when testifying at any court proceeding:

  • Neat appearance and proper dress are important.

  • Prior to testifying, try to recall the crime scene, what was there, and exactly what happened, the best you can. Don’t try to memorize what you are going to say.

  • Always tell the truth. If you do not know the answer to a question, say, “I don’t know.” Do not guess.

  • Listen very carefully to each question, making sure you understand completely, before answering. If you do not understand a question, ask for it to be repeated or rephrased.

  • Speak clearly and loudly enough so that the judge and jury can hear you. Be polite, firm and clear in your answers.

  • Answer only the questions asked and then stop. Don’t provide information unless you are specifically asked.

  • If the questions you are asked requires a “yes” or “no” answer, answer “yes” or “no” unless your answer cannot be fully understood without an explanation. You may ask the judge if you can explain your answer or elaborate.

  • Stop talking if an objection is made by one of the attorneys or if the judge interrupts. The judge or one of the attorneys will tell you if you can continue your testimony. If you have forgotten the question, ask to have it repeated.

  • Although you may feel nervous and frightened by testifying, it is important to be serious and focused in your approach.

  • If you become upset while testifying, pause until you can regain your composure or ask the judge if you can have a few moments. The judge may call a recess to allow you this time. You may want to ask for a drink of water.

  • If you are asked if you have talked with anyone about the case, answer truthfully. You have probably spoken with police, the district attorney, family and friends. If you say only “yes” in response to the question, the defense attorney may imply that you have been told what to say. It is best to tell whom you have spoken with and that you only have discussed the facts of the case.




The Legal Process - Criminal Justice Flowchart


The NC Victim Assistance Network (NCVAN) is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit that advocates for victims of violent crime, especially surviving family members of homicide victims.


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