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The Trial Stage of a Criminal Case

Stages of the Criminal Justice System

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Businessman in handcuffs in courtroom
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A criminal trial is scheduled if a defendant continues to plead not guilty after the preliminary hearing and plea bargain negotiations have ended. If pre-trial motions have failed to get evidence thrown out or the charges dismissed, and all efforts at plea bargaining have failed, the case proceeds to trial.

At the trial a panel of jurors determines if the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. The vast majority of criminal cases never get to the trial stage. Most are resolved prior to trial in the pre-trial motion stage or the plea bargain stage.

There are several distinct phases of a criminal trial proceeding:

Jury Selection

In order to choose a jury, typically 12 jurors and at least two alternates, a panel of dozens of potential jurors are summoned to the court. Usually, they will fill out a questionnaire prepared in advance that contains questions submitted by both the prosecution and the defense.

Jurors are asked if serving on the jury would present a hardship on them and they are usually asked about their attitudes and experiences that might lead them to be biased in the case before them. Some jurors are typically excused after filling out the written questionnaire.

Questioning Potential Jurors

Both the prosecution and the defense are then allowed to question the potential jurors in open court about their potential biases and their background. Each side can excuse any juror for cause, and each side is given a number of peremptory challenges which can be used to excuse a juror without giving a reason.

Obviously, both the prosecution and the defense want to choose jurors who they think are more likely to agree with their side of the argument. Many a trial has been won during the jury selection process.

Opening Statements

After a jury is selected, its members get their first view of the case during the opening statements by the prosecution and the defense attorneys. Defendants in the United States are presumed innocent until proven guilty, so the burden is on the prosecution to prove its case to the jury.

Consequently, the prosecution's opening statement is first and goes into great detail outlining the evidence against the defendant. The prosecution gives the jury a preview of how it plans to prove what the defendant did, how he did it and sometimes what his motive was.

Alternate Explanation

The defense does not have to make an opening statement at all, or even call witnesses to testify, because the burden of proof is on the prosecutors. Sometimes the defense will wait until after the entire prosecution's case is presented before making an opening statement.

If the defense does make an opening statement, it is usually designed to poke holes in the prosecution's theory of the case and offer the jury an alternate explanation for the facts or evidence presented by the prosecution.

Testimony and Evidence

The main phase of any criminal trial is the "case-in-chef" in which both sides can present witness testimony and evidence to the jury for its consideration. Witnesses are used to lay a foundation for the admitting of evidence.

For example, the prosecution cannot just offer a handgun into evidence until it establishes through witness testimony why the gun is relevant to the case and how it is linked to the defendant. If a police officer first testifies that the gun was found on the defendant when he was arrested, then the gun can be admitted into evidence.

Cross-Examination of Witnesses

After a witness testifies under direct examination, the opposing side has the opportunity to cross-examine the same witness in an effort to discredit their testimony or challenge their credibility or otherwise shake their story.

In most jurisdictions, after the cross-examination, the side who originally called the witness can ask question on re-direct examination in an effort to rehabilitate any damage that might have been done on cross-examination.

Closing Arguments

Many times, after the prosecution rests its case, the defense will make a motion to dismiss the case because the evidence presented did not prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rarely does the judge grant this motion, but it does happen.

It is often the case that the defense does not present witnesses or testimony of its own, because they feel they were successful in attacking the prosecution's witnesses and evidence during cross-examination.

After both sides rest their case, each side is allowed to make a closing argument to the jury. The prosecution attempts to strengthen the evidence they presented to the jury, while the defense attempts to convince the jury that the evidence falls short and leaves room for reasonable doubt.

Jury Instructions

An important part of any criminal trial is the instructions that the judge gives to the jury before they begin deliberations. In those instructions, in which the prosecution and the defense have offered their input to the judge, the judge outlines the ground rules the jury must utilize during its deliberations.

The judge will explain what legal principles are involved with the case, describe important concepts of law such as reasonable doubt, and outline to the jury what findings they must make in order to come to their conclusions. The jury is supposed to abide by the judge's instructions throughout their deliberation process.

Jury Deliberations

Once the jury retires to the jury room, the first order of business is usually to elect a foreman from its members to facilitate the deliberations. Sometimes, the foreman will take a quick poll of the jury to find out how close they are to agreement, and get an idea of what issues need to be discussed.

If the initial vote of the jury is unanimous or very one-sided for or against guilt, jury deliberations can be very brief, and the foreman reports to the judge that a verdict has been reached.

A Unanimous Decision

If the jury is not initially unanimous, discussions between jurors continue in an effort to reach a unanimous vote. These deliberations can take days or even weeks to complete if the jury is widely split or has one "holdout" juror voting against the other 11.

If the jury cannot come to an unanimous decision and is hopeless split, the jury foreman reports to the judge that the jury is deadlocked, also known as a hung jury. The judge declares a mistrial and the prosecution has to decide whether to retry the defendant at another time, offer the defendant a better plea deal or drop the charges altogether.

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