The Steps of a Criminal Trial
Every year, Americans exercise their constitutional right to challenge criminal charges that the government attempts to bring against them. However, most Americans expectations of the trial process are inaccurately based on courtroom dramas such as Law & Order or How to get Away with Murder. Unfortunately, many Americans find themselves overwhelmed and unable to keep up with their attorney. That is why it is important to have a basic understanding of what to expect before entering the courtroom.
1. Pretrial Matters
In the months leading up to a trial, both attorneys will file motions to address issues that may arise during the trial process. This step ensures that the actual trial goes as smoothly as possible. These pretrial hearings range from attorneys filing motions to suppress evidence under the 4th Amendment to establishing an experts qualifications.
2. Voir Dire
After the pretrial matters have been resolved, a jury is selected to hear the case. During this process, both attorneys have an opportunity to question potential jurors about their personal beliefs and experiences. The purpose of this step is to weed out biased jurors. After questioning the jurors, each attorney may “strike” a certain number from the jury pool.
3. Opening Statements
After the jury is selected and sworn in, both attorneys give an opening statement to the jury. This statement is not argumentative in nature, but rather provides a road map of the evidence that the jury will hear throughout the trial.
4. Prosecution’s Case in Chief
The prosecution presents evidence first because they bear the burden of proof in a criminal trial. During the case-in-chief, the prosecution will call witnesses for direct examination and the defense will have an opportunity to cross examine the witnesses. In addition to calling witnesses, the prosecution may enter evidence that the jury can consider during deliberations
5. Defense’s Case in Chief
If the defense is confident that the prosecution has not met their burden to prove the defendant committed a particular crime, they are not obligated to present any witnesses. However, many defense teams will still present witnesses that shed doubt on the prosecution’s theory. Just as in the prosecutions case-in-chief, the opposing party will have an opportunity to cross-examine every witness called.
6. Prosecution Rebuttal
After the defense has presented their case, the prosecution has the option to call rebuttal witnesses to persuade the jury that the defense theory is inaccurate. During rebuttal, the prosecution is limited in only being allowed to offer testimony that is within the scope of the defendant’s case in chief.
7. Closing Arguments
After all of the evidence has been heard, both parties are given the opportunity to argue their case to the jury. Attorneys will generally introduce a theme and then explain how each piece of evidence factors into their theory of the case.
8. Deliberation & Verdict
After closing arguments, the judge will explain the law to the jurors and they will retire to the deliberation room to consider all of the evidence. Deliberations can last anywhere from minutes to weeks and months depending on the length of trial. After the jury has reached a verdict, the judge will read it in open court.
Well, there you have it! If you want to read more on a wide variety of legal topics, you can head back to the home page.