Criminal law: Do charges ever get dismissed before going to trial?

A few months ago I was on a jury, and our case involved a defendant who was driving while high on PCP, and in the course of the incident, ran over a victim in his car. Fortunately it was a very small car, so the victim actually got up and limped away from it. It was all on video, and we deliberated for about an hour before we convicted him. At the time I remember feeling bad for the defense attorney, having to work through a case like that when there was so little he could use. He cross examined the people’s witnesses, but did not present a case in chief (terminology?) at all. After all, what good would it have done?

What I’m wondering now if whether it was possible that the original charges had been something like attempted vehicular manslaughter, and the defense had succeeded in getting that reduced to driving while intoxicated causing severe injury? Can that sort of thing ever happen where the case still goes to a full trial, rather than straight to a plea agreement? Could it be that in this case, the defense’s main triumph was before the trial ever began?

I only clerked when I was involved in criminal law, so my knowledge is spotty at best. However, I’ve had cases in Washington, D.C. where there were a whole list of charges pending against my client, and through discovery and the course of the trial and a bunch of co-defendants pleading out that the final trial was over comparatively minor things. Considering the the amount of charges brought forth (several counts of murder, possession with intent of various drug classes, several counts of a&b, RICO) and the actual conviction (possesion w/intent, and possession of firearms, we got the RICO case dismissed), we considered it a well-fought victory.

A short answer to the OP is that yes, such things are possible. At least in my state, the defendant has a right to a preliminary hearing, during which a Judge will decide whether there is a legal basis for the charges against the Defendant. The Court may decide that the evidence is insufficient to support all or some of the charges. If that happens, the charges that are not supported in law and fact are dismissed, but any remaining charges will be scheduled for trial–sometimes this leads to a plea bargain.

Absolutely. Pre-trial maneuvering, both negotiations and motions, can alter the charges before a trial ever happens.

Usually the goal of plea bargaining is to eliminate the need for a trial in its entirety; the fact that the Commonwealth wants to avoid the time and expense of a trial is the chief motivating factor for deals to be made. But it’s not unheard of to dispose of some pending matters with a plea and reserve others for trial, especially if the trial matters are misdemeanors. In Virginia, the General District Court is the trial court for misdemeanors; the Circuit Court is the trial court for felonies. Getting space on the docket is much easier in the district court.

Wow, thanks for all the informed, professional responses.