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Steps of a criminal trial

What to expect during a trial

The steps of a criminal trial include jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence, closing statements, jury deliberation, verdict, and sentencing. Depending on the number of witnesses, the amount of evidence, and the complexity of the case, a criminal trial can last anywhere from a day to several weeks or months. Your lawyer will be able to give you an educated guess about the length of the trial.

However, most criminal charges do not lead to a trial. If you plead guilty when charges are filed, you can accept a sentence without going to trial, or you might be able to bargain with the prosecutor for a plea deal to reduce your sentence.

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When a case goes to trial

Other court proceedings, including the arraignment and pre-trial hearing, typically happen before a criminal trial. If necessary, the prosecutor can drop the charges during this time. Pre-trial proceedings are also opportunities for your lawyer to argue for dismissing the charges. If the judge accepts these arguments, the trial can be cancelled.

Jury selection

The defense and prosecution select 6 to 12 jurors, depending on the rules of the particular court, from a group of potential jury members. Each side looks for jury members who will not be prejudiced against its side.

Lawyers for each side may dismiss potential jurors for having clear biases, prior experience with a similar case, or other personal attributes or life experience. Attorneys may be able to dismiss a limited number of potential jurors without stating a reason. This type of dismissal is called a peremptory strike.

Opening statements

The trial begins with opening statements. The prosecution makes the first opening statement, outlining the argument it will be making throughout the trial. Although the opening statement is not a presentation of evidence, it must rely on facts, not unsubstantiated allegations or speculation.

The defense gives its opening statement after the prosecution. The defense may choose, for strategic reasons, not to give an opening statement at the start of the trial. The defense may instead give this statement right before presenting its own evidence.

Prosecution presents evidence

After opening statements, the prosecution presents its evidence. This evidence may be in the form of physical items, data records, documents, audiovisual recordings, or testimony from witnesses.

The defense may cross-examine witnesses at the end of their testimonies, and the prosecution might re-examine the witnesses.

Defense presents evidence

After the prosecution has presented all of its evidence supporting a guilty verdict, the defense presents its evidence that would support a not-guilty verdict. Again, the defense may call witnesses and present evidence.

As the defendant, you are not required to testify. The 5th Amendment protects people from incriminating themselves. This means they do not have to provide any testimony or evidence that makes them look guilty.

Rules of evidence

The rules of evidence prevent improper or illegal evidence, such as hearsay from a witness or illegally-collected physical items, from being admitted to the court record as part of the case and influencing the trial decision.

The judge can prevent evidence from being entered into the case when it is introduced. Lawyers may also object to any evidence or testimony given. The judge will decide whether to allow the evidence to be admitted.

Witness testimony and examination

The rules of evidence prohibit certain kinds of questions from lawyers to witnesses during direct or cross-examination. For example, leading questions, phrased to elicit a specific answer, are not allowed. A lawyer cannot ask, “Then you told Sarah that Juan had the money, didn’t you?” to get you to say that Juan had the money.

You must only discuss your factual experiences, and lawyers must only ask about your experiences, not your opinions or speculations. However, expert witnesses, who have qualifications relating to particular medical, forensic, or other evidence in the case, may give their opinions about that evidence.

Rebuttal

After the defense rests its side of the case, the prosecution has the option of presenting new evidence or witnesses to refute the defense’s claims. The prosecution may not present the same witnesses or evidence again.

Closing arguments

After both sides have finished presenting evidence, the prosecution gives its closing statement or closing argument. Closing arguments tie together the evidence presented in the trial to make a case for your guilt or innocence.

As with opening statements, the defense may choose not to give a closing argument. If the defense makes a closing argument, the prosecution may also present a rebuttal.

Jury instruction and deliberation

Before the jury begins to discuss the evidence, the judge gives jurors instructions on how to analyze the evidence and how to understand the relevant laws. For example, the judge might emphasize the prosecution’s burden of proof to present enough valid evidence to establish your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury deliberates in a closed room with no other persons present. The jury must evaluate all the evidence to determine whether it proves you committed the crime, beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors may ask clarifying questions about law or evidence during deliberations, although the judge doesn’t have to answer all questions.

Verdict

The jury’s decision must, in most states and jurisdictions, be unanimous. Oregon and Louisiana permit non-unanimous jury verdicts under certain circumstances.

Upon a guilty verdict, the judge may sentence you immediately, or on another day. If the jury agrees that you are not guilty, you are cleared of the charges. If the jury cannot deliver a unanimous verdict, the jury is considered hung and the judge will declare a mistrial.

Mistrial

A mistrial can occur if inadmissible evidence was presented, the jury instructions were incorrect or biased, or the opening or closing arguments were not based on facts. If a mistrial occurs, the prosecution may prepare for a new trial, or drop the charges.

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