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Discovery in Criminal Cases

Before a civil or criminal trial begins, there's a period of time in which both parties exchange information about the facts of the case. This is called discovery. Both criminal and civil discovery use many of the same tools to ensure that they receive complete information from each side. The discovery process can seem long and burdensome but it's very important to do it correctly. Information that isn't disclosed to the other party during discovery may not be allowed in at trial, unless the parties learned about it after the start of the trial.

Read on to learn more about discovery in criminal cases, and how it can differ from discovery in civil cases.


In a deposition, each party gets the opportunity to ask questions from a witness. The witness is under oath to tell the truth, but unlike trial, there are very few rules about the kind of questions that can be asked, and the witness generally has to answer most questions unless the information is privileged. Communications between an attorney and their client, for example, are generally protected by attorney-client privilege. Depositions help the parties get a fuller understanding of the events of the case and get an idea of what the witness might say if called to testify at trial.

Interrogatories and Requests for Admission

Interrogatories are like depositions, except the questions are written and directed only to a party in the lawsuit. The party must then respond (or object) in writing and sign a sworn statement that the information in the response to the interrogatory is the truth. Interrogatories allow each side to understand the other side's version of the facts.

Requests for admission are fairly similar to interrogatories, but the only possible answers that the responding party can give are to admit or deny a statement. Attorneys use requests for admission to show that some statements are true without having to prove them at trial.

Document Production Requests

In the document production process, one party will give the other party documents related to the case. This is one area where discovery in criminal cases and discovery in civil cases can be different. In a civil case, parties must request documents from each other and only need to turn over the specific documents that were requested. In a criminal case, on the other hand, the prosecution usually has a duty to provide certain documents to the defendant, regardless of whether or not the defense asked for it. These can include police reports, transcripts of wiretaps, or, in the case of white collar crime, corporate records.


Some states mandate that the parties make certain disclosures to each other, although the exact disclosures will vary by state. They often include whether either party will use an expert witness, such as a doctor or ballistics expert. During discovery in criminal cases, the defendant is usually required to tell the prosecutor whether they're planning on giving any special defenses, such as insanity.

Learn More About Discovery in Criminal Cases from an Attorney

If you're involved in a criminal trial, much of it will center around evidence and the discovery process. Proper discovery requires a close reading of your state's rules of procedure, and is best handled by a local trial attorney. The best way to ensure that you follow the rules of discovery and present the best defense at trial is to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who will be well-versed in criminal trials.

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