A criminal law trial is the government's opportunity to argue its case, get a guilty verdict and the defendant's conviction. A jury trial also represents the defense's chance to refute the government's evidence and to offer its own in some cases. A jury examines the evidence to decide whether, beyond a reasonable doubt, the government has proved the defendant committed the crime in question. The jury, as a group, considers whether to find the defendant guilty or not guilty of the crimes charged.
A complete criminal trial typically consists of six main phases:
- Choosing a jury
- Opening statements
- Witness testimony and cross-examination
- Closing arguments
- Jury instructions
- Jury deliberation and verdict
Although a trial is the most high-profile phase of the criminal justice process, most criminal cases resolve in the pretrial stage through guilty or no-contest pleas, plea bargains, or dismissals of charges. The sentencing comes at a later date.
1. Choosing a Jury
Except for rare cases heard only by a judge, jury selection is one of the first steps in any criminal trial. The judge and attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant will question a pool of potential jurors in a process called voir dire. The purpose is to determine a potential juror's fitness to serve by asking about personal ideological biases or life experiences pertaining to the case.
The judge can excuse potential jurors at this stage if their responses show they cannot be fair or impartial. Also, the defense and the prosecution may exclude a certain number of jurors through "peremptory challenges" and "for cause."
A peremptory challenge can exclude a juror for any reason except based on:
A challenge "for cause" can dismiss a juror who has shown that they cannot be truly impartial in deciding the case. For example, Juror A answers "yes" when asked whether street drugs should be legalized. The prosecution can most likely exclude her for cause from the pool of jurors in a drug possession case, given her bias against drug laws.
The defense can use a peremptory challenge to exclude Juror B from the jury pool in a case where a police officer was an assault victim after it's learned that the juror has two brothers in law enforcement. Even if Juror B adamantly says she can remain impartial in her case assessment, the defense may excuse her without declaring any grounds.
2. Opening Statements
Once a jury is selected, the first dialogue at trial comes in the form of two opening statements — one from the prosecutor on behalf of the government and the other from the defense. No witnesses testify at this stage, and no one presents physical evidence.
The government has the burden to prove the defendant's guilt. So the prosecutor's opening statement goes first and is often more detailed than a defense attorney's. In some cases, the defense may wait until the conclusion of the government's main case before making its opening statement.
The prosecutor presents:
- The facts of the case, from the government's perspective
- Walks the jury through what the government will try to prove
- Evidence of what the defendant did, how, and why
The defense responds with:
- An alternative interpretation of the facts
- A rebuttal of the government's key evidence
- All available legal defenses to the crimes charged
3. Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
At the heart of any criminal trial is the "case-in-chief," the stage at which each side presents its key evidence to the jury.
In its case-in-chief, the government intentionally sets forth evidence to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. At this point, the prosecutor calls eyewitnesses and experts to testify. The prosecutor may also introduce physical evidence, such as weapons, photographs, documents, and medical reports.
Whether the prosecuting attorney or the defense calls a witness, the witness testimony process usually follows this timeline:
- The prosecutor calls the witness to the stand, and the witness takes an oath to tell the truth. Witnesses can be charged with perjury if they make false statements under oath.
- The party who called the witness to the stand questions the witness through direct examination. They prompt information from the witness through questions to strengthen the party's position in the case.
- After direct examination, the opposing party can question the witness by cross-examining their testimony.
- After cross-examination, the side that originally called the witness has a second opportunity to question them through re-direct examination and attempt to remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.
- Any party can use objections during the trial to oppose the admission of improper evidence for technical reasons, such as leading a witness, hearsay, or failure to lay a proper foundation for a piece of evidence. The objections help preserve the issue in case of an appeal.
After the government concludes its case-in-chief, the defense can present its own evidence. In some cases, the defense may choose not to present a case-in-chief. Rather, the defense makes its key points through cross-examining the government's witnesses and challenges to highlight the insufficient evidence. If the defense does choose to present a case, the prosecution then has the opportunity to present rebuttal evidence to address anything presented by the defense.
Once the prosecution and defense have had an opportunity to present their cases and challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides rest. This means no more evidence will be presented to the jury in district court before closing arguments.
4. Closing Arguments
Like the opening statement, the closing argument offers the parties a chance to sum up the case, recapping key evidence or the lack thereof in a light favorable to their respective positions. This is the final chance for the parties to address the jury before deliberations.
The government seeks to show why there is enough evidence for the jury to find the defendant guilty. In turn, the defense argues the government has fallen short of its burden of proof. The defense will undermine the government's case. It will also argue that the state lacks enough evidence, so the jury must find the defendant not guilty.
5. Jury Instruction
The next step toward a verdict is jury instructions, a process in which the judge gives the jury a set of legal standards by which to decide whether the defendant is guilty. The judge decides what legal standards should apply to the defendant's case based on the criminal charges and the evidence presented during the trial.
Often, this process takes place with input and argument from the prosecution and defense. The judge instructs the jury on the applicable law, including findings the jury must make to arrive at certain conclusions.
The judge also describes key concepts, such as guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," and defines any crimes the jury may consider based on the evidence presented at trial. For example, if the defendant's charged with the criminal offense of voluntary manslaughter, the judge will:
- Define the elements of voluntary manslaughter (the charged crime)
- Define the elements of related crimes, such as involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder
- Set out the findings the jury would need to make to convict the defendant of each crime
Before letting the case go to the jury, the trial court judge will outline the jurors' responsibilities. For example, jurors may not discuss the case outside the jury room, and all jurors must agree on the verdict in a criminal case.
6. Jury Deliberation and Verdict
The jurors' first task as a group is to select a foreperson. This spokesperson will track the case discussions through a process called deliberation. The jurors will attempt to agree on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crimes charged. Deliberation is the first chance for the jury to discuss the case and apply facts to the evidence presented. This methodical process can last from a few hours to several weeks.
Once the jury reaches a verdict, the jury foreperson informs the judge. The verdict is read in open court. All states require a jury in a criminal case to be unanimous in finding a defendant "guilty" or "not guilty."
If the jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict and finds itself at a standstill (a hung jury), the judge may declare a "mistrial" and dismiss the case, or the trial may start over from the jury selection stage.
Before You Go to Trial, Get Professional Legal Help
Whether your criminal case is at the initial appearance, arraignment, or pretrial motion phase, having an attorney on your side can prove critical in preserving your constitutional rights. Court proceedings can be overwhelming, even if you believe the charges are minor, such as in misdemeanor cases. Depending on the severity of the charges, a lawyer can negotiate for little to no jail time or community service.
But for felony cases, there are collateral consequences you may not be aware of. For example, those convicted of domestic violence may face difficulty securing housing, employment, etc.
A criminal defense attorney can:
At many points during your criminal trial, failure to raise a timely objection can result in conceding an issue for appeal purposes. You could fail to object when the district attorney assumes facts not in evidence while questioning a witness.
The Court of Appeals or Supreme Court may not allow you to argue issues you failed to preserve by not objecting. That's one of the reasons having an experienced attorney at your side is important throughout the process — and not just at trial. It doesn't hurt to get a second opinion, even if you plan to use court-appointed counsel (public defender).