Indictment vs. Conviction: Everything You Need to Know

by LegalFix
Posted: July 9, 2024
indictment, information, and complaint

Have you ever encountered the terms "indictment" and "conviction" and wondered what the difference is? Understanding the distinction between these two stages in the criminal justice process can be confusing. Today, we’ll break down indictment vs. conviction, guiding you through the key steps from investigation to potential outcomes. 

Understanding the Criminal Justice Process

The American criminal justice system is built on the foundation of due process, which ensures fair treatment for everyone accused of a crime. This means following established legal procedures to protect individual rights. Understanding indictment vs. conviction falls within this framework. 

Key Stages in a Criminal Case

A criminal case can be a complex journey with several key stages. 

  • Investigation: Law enforcement investigates a suspected crime and gathers evidence.

  • Arrest: If probable cause exists, a suspect may be arrested. 

  • Pretrial Procedures: This stage involves initial court appearances, potential release on bail, and exchange of information between prosecution and defense. 

  • Trial: Here, the prosecution presents evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has the right to present a defense and challenge the prosecution's case. 

  • Verdict: If found guilty, the defendant faces sentencing. An acquittal means the defendant is not guilty. 

Indictment vs. Conviction

What Is an Indictment?

Occurring around the stages of arrest or pretrial procedures, an indictment is a formal accusation of a crime issued by a grand jury. The grand jury, typically a group of citizens, reviews evidence presented by the prosecution and decides whether there's probable cause to believe a crime was committed. 

This process is designed to be a safeguard against unfounded prosecutions. Unlike a trial by jury, the grand jury proceedings are secret, and the defendant does not have the right to be present or have legal representation. 

If the grand jury indicts the defendant, they are formally charged with the crime. This triggers the arraignment, where the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. An indictment does not automatically mean guilt; it simply means the case can proceed to trial. 

From Indictment to Conviction

After an indictment, the next step is arraignment. An arraignment is a court hearing at which the defendant is formally informed of the charges against them. At this hearing, the defendant enters an initial plea, which can be changed later. 

The pre-trial phase involves information exchange (discovery) between the prosecution and defense. Both sides gather evidence, interview witnesses, and file motions with the court on various legal issues. 

If no plea bargain is reached and the case goes to trial, the prosecution has the burden of proof. They must present evidence that convinces the jury of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the defendant to be found guilty or convicted of the crime. This means that, although the defense will usually attempt to undermine the prosecution’s case, the defendant has no obligation to do so and may decline to cross-examine witnesses or put on evidence of their own.

If, in the end, the jury returns a guilty verdict, the defendant has been formally convicted of the crime. 

Alternatives to Conviction

Some defendants are found not guilty and released, but many criminal cases are also resolved through plea bargains. For example, in exchange for pleading guilty to a lesser charge or cooperating with the prosecution, the defendant may receive a lighter sentence. Additionally, charges can be dismissed entirely if evidence is insufficient or there are procedural issues with the case. 

Know Your Rights with LegalFix

Understanding the difference between indictment and conviction is a valuable step toward demystifying the criminal justice process. But although an indictment signifies formal charges, it's far from being the final word. A journey through the legal system can involve various stages and potential outcomes.

The criminal justice system can be complex, and navigating it without legal representation can be overwhelming. If you are facing criminal charges, seeking legal representation from a qualified attorney is crucial. An experienced criminal defense attorney can advise you of your rights, represent you in court, and advocate for your best interests throughout the process. 

When legal questions arise, you also have LegalFix on your side. Whether you want to know about the differences between an indictment and a conviction or just want a better understanding of how our legal system works, LegalFix is your go-to source for free legal information. You can find helpful articles and state-specific explanations of nearly 1,600 legal topics—and browse the state and federal statutes to better understand the laws that affect you. Just visit to find all this content—and check back often for more valuable legal products and services coming soon.