Stages Of A Criminal Case Trial

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The trial is the most well-known aspect of criminal case. Although many criminal cases never even make it to the trial process, due to plea bargains, motions to dismiss, and other factors, still others do go to trial. Simply put, a trial is when the parties on opposite sides of a dispute convene, generally in a court, before a judge and/or jury, in order to present information and resolve their dispute. In a civil trial, the parties are individuals, groups of individuals or corporations. In a criminal trial it is the state, acting through a prosecutor, which is brings a suit against and individual or group of individuals.

First, the decision must be made, by the defense, whether it wants a trial before a judge or before a jury. Trials held before a judge, also called bench trials, are generally quicker and less burdensome to the court than a jury trial, but most criminal defendants are entitled to have their case heard by a jury of their peers, since their life, liberty or property may be at stake. The prosecution, however, cannot require a jury trial.

A jury trial will necessitate the selection of a jury from a pool of qualified citizens. The system of jury selection is called voir dire, and involves the questioning of potential jurors to determine their fitness and impartiality. Attorneys for both sides must agree on each juror.

After the jury is selected, the defense and prosecution request that the court admit or exclude certain evidence, in what is known as motions in limine.

The next step in a criminal trial are the opening statements. In opening statements, attorneys for the prosecution will state the facts surrounding the criminal charges against the defendant and explain what the prosecution is attempting to prove. Next, the defense will make their opening statement, describing how they will prove the defendant's innocence. In some cases the defense will defer opening argument until the beginning of the defense case.

Key evidence will be presented to the court and jury, along with witness testimonies. The prosecution will begin this process, called prosecution case-in-chief, by using its evidence and witness testimonies. The defense will then cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. After cross-examination comes redirect, a process by which the prosecution may re-examine its witnesses. The prosecution will then rest its case. At this time, the defense may then move to dismiss the charges if it thinks that the prosecution has failed to present sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict. Almost always, however, the judge will deny the defense's motion to dismiss.

The sequence of events now repeats, this time with the defense presenting and questioning its witnesses, the prosecution cross-examining, and then redirect by the defense. The defense then rests. Next comes rebuttal by the prosecution, after which both the prosecution and the defense confer with the judge in order to finalize instructions to give the jury.

The next stage in the criminal trial is the closing arguments or statements that are made by both sides. Closing arguments are very similar to the openings statements. The prosecution will make a summary of their case against the defendant. The defense will then make closing arguments as to why there is not substantial evidence for the defendant's conviction. In a criminal trial, the prosecution gets the last word, and if it chooses to, may rebut yet again after the defense's closing argument.

The judge overseeing the trial will then instruct the jury. In this step, the judge may make several legal explanations to the jury regarding the relevant crime or crimes. Additionally, the judge will instruct the jury that they must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and explain what constitutes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury will deliberate in seclusion, in an attempt to reach a decision as to the guilt or innocence of the accused. Most states require an unanimous verdict, but in Oregon and Louisiana a defendant can be convicted with only 10 out of 12 votes.

Once the jury has reached a verdict, they will inform the court, at which time all participants in the jury trial will reassemble, and the verdict will be read aloud. If the jury has handed down a guilty verdict, the defense may opt to make post-trial motions, requesting that the judge either grant a new trial or acquit the defendant, but the judge will almost always deny these motions. In the event of a conviction, the judge will either sentence the defendant at that time, or will set a date for a sentencing.