Criminal Trial Process
If your case is going through the criminal trial process, it’s a good idea for you to understand what will be happening so you can help your criminal defense attorney as much as possible.
What follows is a brief, general explanation of the steps in a criminal trial. Remember that specifics will vary by jurisdiction so be sure to contact a local, experienced criminal defense attorney for advice regarding your particular situation.
1. Choice between judge and jury.
Jury trials are permitted in many, but not all criminal trials. Many criminal defense attorneys believe jury trials are preferable as unanimous verdicts are required and the defense gets a hand in selecting jurors. Note that if either the prosecution or defense requests a jury trial, there will be one.
2. Jury selection.
If a jury trial is chosen, the next step is choosing the jury in a process called voir dire. Potential jurors are asked to answer standard questions and then each side gets to ask specific questions while deciding who to keep and who to dismiss. An unlimited number of jurors may be dismissed by either side for cause, but there is a limit on peremptory challenges to jurors, those for which the attorneys do not have to offer a cause.
3. Opening statements.
Each side makes an introductory statement to the jury that describes the facts, evidence, and upcoming arguments they will make. Opening statements basically lay two different roadmaps for the jury to follow throughout the case.
4. Prosecution’s case.
The prosecution presents first in criminal trials as the burden of proof (guilt beyond a reasonable doubt) is on them. During the prosecution’s case, they may present witness and other evidence to show their theory of what occurred and why the defendant is guilty of the crime(s) charged. The defense may cross-examine and challenge prosecution witnesses and evidence.
5. Defense’s case.
After the prosecution closes its presentation of evidence and witnesses, it is the defense’s turn. A good criminal defense attorney will both offer her own theory of the case as well as rebut the prosecution’s evidence and witnesses as much as possible. The prosecution, of course, can cross-examine and challenge defense witnesses and evidence.
6. Closing arguments.
Each side wraps up their side with a final explanation as to why they are right and the jury should find in their favor.
7. Jury instructions and deliberations.
The judge gives the jury instructions regarding what points of law and other information they are to consider in reaching a decision. The jury then takes all of the evidence into consideration as it determines which side has convinced them. There is no time limit on the length of deliberations.
The jury must be unanimous for conviction of a defendant and the evidence must show the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If a jury can’t reach a unanimous decision, they are considered deadlocked or hung, and a mistrial is declared.
The jury delivers its verdict, or decision, to the court, and both sides are advised that a decision has been reached. If a defendant is found not guilty, he will be released from custody or control of the court.
If a defendant is found guilty, he will then be sentenced, but this part of the process usually comes at a later date and not as part of the trial itself. This is what is called a bifurcated trial process as the trial and sentencing phases are separate.