How Does a Criminal Trial Work?

Posted by Keith Hall | Oct 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

My clients often have a belief as to how a criminal trial will work, that is based upon the trials that they have seen on television or the movie screens.  These trials may or may not accurately depict what a criminal trial will look like.  

Pretrial Motions

A case can be won or lost on pretrial motions.  These motions determine what evidence is allowed to be presented to the jury for them to make their decision. Attorneys are often arguing whether previous criminal history of a witness or defendant, or other information, can be admitted at trial.  Other times a defense attorney may be seeking dismissal of a case prior to a trial, based on the lack of evidence or after suppression hearing.

Voir Dire - Jury Selection

The process of voir dire is where jurors are selected from an available pool.  Jurors are summoned in for a period of jury service and may appear on civil, criminal, or both types of trials.  The attorneys are able to assist the court in the selection process, and are allowed a certain number of peremptory challenges by the court, where they can excuse a potential juror for any reason or no reason at all.  The attorneys are also given unlimited "for cause" challenges, where they can excuse jurors who are unwilling or unable to fairly decide a case. 

Jury Instructions

These are the instructions that are provided by the court to the jury, which the jury uses to determine what the law is, and how they should apply it.  There are jury instructions for every different criminal charge, and most situations that arise in court.  The attorneys submit their jury instructions to the judge at either the start of the case, or at the conclusion of the case.  The judge then selects which instructions will be used, and they are provided to the jury at the conclusion of the case.

Jury or Bench Trial

Either the prosecutor or the defendant can assert their right to a jury trial.  If neither side asks for a jury trial, a bench trial can occur where the judge decided guilt or innocence.  Normally a criminal defendant is advised to demand a jury trial, where all of the jurors would be required to unanimously decide that the person was guilty.  

Order of Presentation 

Since the prosecutor bears the burden of proof, they are allowed to start first.  The prosecution will make their opening statement, present their witnesses, and then rest their case.  Their witnesses are subject to cross examination (questioning) by the defense lawyers.  Once the prosecution rests their case, the defense is able to call their own witnesses and present their case.  The defense witnesses are similarly subject to cross examination by the prosecutor.  Once the defense rests their case, the prosecutor will make closing argument followed by the defense, and the prosecutor is allowed to have the final word.

Opening Statements

A trial starts with an opening statement by the prosecuting attorney.  An opening statement describes the criminal allegations, what the prosecutor expects the evidence will be, and what the prosecutor expects the trial to look like. The defense is also allowed to make an opening statement, which can be done directly after the prosecutor's, or at the time the defense starts their case. 

Witnesses & Evidence

All of the information that the jury or judge is given in a case comes in the form of evidence.  This evidence is given from the witness stand, and witnesses are expected to tell the truth under penalty of perjury.  This can take the form of testimonial evidence, such as "this is what I saw", or physical evidence such as a murder weapon or photographs of the crime scene.  There are very specific rules of evidence that govern what can and cannot be admitted into court.  The judge is tasked with deciding what evidence is admissible and what should be suppressed from the record.

Closing Statements

At the conclusion of the case, when both parties have rested, they are allowed to present closing statements where they argue what the evidence was and what it proved or disproved in the trial.  The closing statement usually is the final word the lawyers will have with the jurors prior to their deciding the fate of the criminal defendant, and both the prosecutor and defense attorney will be seeking to convince them that they prevailed.

Juror Deliberation

Once jurors have heard the entire case, they receive instructions from the judge and they meet in the jury room to deliberate.  This is the process where they discuss the case amongst themselves, and ultimately cast votes to determine whether a criminal defendant will be found guilty or not guilty.  This process can take hours or days, and occasionally jurors will have questions for the judge or attorneys where the court will reconvene the parties.  The attorneys are normally required to be on call, and able to immediately travel to the courthouse for any juror questions or issues.  If the jurors are able to come to a verdict, they will let the court clerk know and the parties will return to court for reading of the verdict.

Post Trial

If a defendant is found not-guilty after a trial, the proceedings are ended.  If the person was held in custody, they will be released.  If a person is found guilty, the sentencing is usually set to a later date but occasionally can happen immediately.  

About the Author

Keith Hall

Keith is our firm's lead criminal defense attorney.

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