When a criminal defendant pleas “not guilty” to the charges against him, a criminal trial will be set. Because only five to ten percent of those charged with crimes plead “not guilty,” most criminal cases do not make it to the trial phase. Plea bargaining is a common alternative to pleading “not guilty” and going to trial. If a criminal case does go to trial, the criminal case will often proceed in a specific way.
In most cases, the criminal defendant will have the option of choosing to have a jury trial or a bench trial. The US Constitution guarantees that all persons accused of serious criminal offenses have the right to a trial by an impartial jury. In some cases, it may also be advantageous to choose a bench trial in which a judge will preside over your trial. Speaking with a qualified criminal defense attorney can help you decide which is best in your situation.
If your trial will be heard by a jury, the jury selection process will take place before the actual trial. Both the prosecution and defense are involved in the jury selection process. The judge facilitates the process of jury selection, also called “voir dire,” based on questions developed by the attorneys on each side. Evidence issues will also be settled before a trial. The attorneys for the prosecution and the defense can request certain evidence be admitted or excluded from the trial. These requests are called “in limine” motions.
Once these pre-trial issues are settled, the actual trial will begin, typically through the following pattern.
1. OPENING STATEMENTS: First the prosecutor, then the defense, will make opening statements to the court. Opening statements typically provide an outline of the facts each side will try to prove during the trial. Some defense attorneys will wait until the beginning of the defense case to make an opening statement.
2. PROSECUTION CASE-IN-CHIEF: The prosecution will present their side of the criminal case through direct examination of their chosen witnesses. The defense will then have the opportunity to cross-examine these prosecution witnesses. A re-direct will allow the prosecution to re-examine the prosecution witnesses. Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case, the prosecution will rest, concluding this period of the trial.
3. MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL: At this point during a criminal trial, the defense will often make a motion for the judge to acquitted the defendant on some or all charges. This request is not often honored, and is often more of a formality than a useful tool.
4. DEFENSE CASE-IN-CHIEF: The defense will then have the opportunity to present their main case through direct examination of their witnesses. The prosecution will have the opportunity to cross-examine the defense witnesses. During a re-direct, the defense may re-examine the witnesses. The defense rests when they have finished presenting their case.
5. PROSECUTION REBUTTAL: At this point in the criminal trial, the prosecution may offer evidence to refute the arguments made by the defense.
6. CLOSING ARGUMENTS: The prosecution will make their closing remarks and the defense will follow. The prosecution will summarize the evidence they’ve presented and explain why the judge or jury should render a guilty verdict. The defense will summarize their version of the facts and explain why the defendant should be acquitted.
7. JURY INSTRUCTIONS: The jury will be told which laws should be applied to the case and how they are to carry out their duties. In some jurisdictions,jury instructions will come before the closing arguments are made.
8. JURY DELIBERATIONS: The jury will deliberate for as long as it takes to reach a verdict. In most states, unanimous agreement must be met for a verdict to be reached. In some states a certain number of “votes” from the jurors will constitute a guilty verdict. Once the jury has determined their verdict, either guilty or not guilty for each crime in question, it will be read to the court.
9. POST-TRIAL MOTIONS: If the jury delivers a guilty verdict, the defense will usually ask the judge to override the jury’s decision and acquit the defendant or grant him a new trial. This motion is almost always denied.
10. SENTENCING: If the defendant was convicted of the crime(s), sentencing will be determined by the judge immediately after the verdict is read or at a later court date.
11. POST-CONVICTION MOTIONS: After the defendant has been sentenced, there are more motions that can be filed including an appeal, a motion for new trial, a motion for reconsideration, and a Motion for a review of sentence.