What Happens During a Criminal Trial?

If you’ve been accused of a DUI, domestic violence, assault, or any other form of crime, you’ll want to know what the next steps are and what happens during a criminal trial.

What Happens During a Criminal Trial?

While every trial will be different depending on the type of accusations and the circumstances of the case, most trials follow roughly the same processes.

In a criminal trial, a jury examines evidence to decide if the defendant committed the crime in question. The jury must decide “beyond a reasonable doubt” which means that no other logical explanation can be derived from the evidence except that the defendant committed the crime.

A trial is a legal proceeding during which the government will argue its case against a defendant in hopes that the defendant is found “guilty.” A trial is, at the same time, a legal proceeding during which the defendant (through his or her legal team) will try to refute the evidence against him or her. Essentially the government brings a case against a defendant, and the defendant will attempt to prove his or her innocence. Both sides will present their arguments during the trial and a jury will decide whether to find the defendant guilty or not guilty of the crime(s) charged.

It should be noted that the majority of cases actually never go through a trial process. Instead, many are resolved before they have a chance to go through trial – usually through other means such as guilty or no contest pleas, plea bargains, or dismissal of charges.

The Phases of a Trial

A criminal trial typically consists of six phases:

  • Choosing a Jury
  • Opening Statements
  • Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
  • Closing Arguments
  • Jury Instruction
  • Jury Deliberation and Verdict

Choosing a Jury

One of the first steps in any criminal trial is jury selection. There are exceptions to this for cases that are only heard before a judge. During jury selection, a judge questions a pool of potential jurors about matters pertaining to the particular case. Usually, a plaintiff and defendant are also able to question the jury via their respective attorneys. The questions are meant to establish an idea of how a juror might view the case and typically delve into any personal ideological predispositions or life experiences that may pertain to the case. The judge is able to excuse potential jurors at this stage, based on their responses to questioning

Both the defense and the prosecution are able to exclude a certain number of jurors. This is done through the use of “peremptory challenges” and challenges “for cause.”

Peremptory Challenges are used to exclude a juror for any non-discriminatory reason. A Challenge for Cause is used to exclude a juror who has shown that he or she cannot be truly objective when it comes to deciding on the verdict.

Opening Statements

Once the jury is selected, the trial moves into Opening Statements. There are two opening statements given – one from the prosecution team on behalf of the government, and the other from the defense team.

The prosecution, which represents the government, has the “burden of proof,” meaning it must prove the charges filed against the defendant and that the defendant is guilty. The prosecutor’s opening statement is given first and is often more detailed than the defense’s opening statement. In some cases, the defense waits until the government concludes its main case before making an opening statement.

During opening statements, the following occurs:

  • The prosecution team presents the facts of the case from the government’s perspective, walks the jury through what the government is trying to prove — what the defendant did, how, and why.
  • The defense team presents its interpretation of the facts and tries to set up its argument for rebutting the prosecution’s evidence.

Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination

The “case-in-chief” is the stage at which each side presents its key evidence to the jury.

During its case-in-chief, the prosecution puts forth its evidence to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. During this part of the trial, the prosecutor calls eyewitnesses and experts to testify in addition to introducing physical evidence, like photographs, documents, and medical reports.

If a witness is called by the government or the defense, the witness testimony process usually follows a timeline:

  • The witness is called to the stand and is “sworn in” during which he or she takes an oath that he or she will tell the truth.
  • The party (either the prosecutor or defense) who called the witness to the stand questions the witness through “direct” examination. This examination is meant to elicit information from the witness through question-and-answer in hopes the witness’ testimony strengthens the argument.
  • After direct examination, the opposing party is given the opportunity to question the witness through a process called “cross-examination.” During this questioning, the opposing party will try to poke holes in the witness’s story, attack their credibility, or otherwise discredit the witness and his or her testimony.
  • Following cross-examination, the side that originally called the witness has a second opportunity to question him or her, through “re-direct examination” in hopes that they can remedy any damaging effects of cross-examination.

After the prosecution concludes its case-in-chief, the defense will present its own evidence in the same manner.  Sometimes the defense may choose not to present a “case-in-chief,” but rather decides to make its key points through cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses, and challenges to the prosecution’s evidence.

Once each side has presented their cases and has had a chance to challenge any evidence, both sides “rest.” This means that no more evidence will be presented to the jury before closing arguments are made.

Closing Arguments

The closing argument stage gives both the prosecution and the defense a chance to “sum up” the case through recapping all the evidence presented. This is the last chance for the teams to address the jury prior to the jury’s deliberation process.

These closing arguments are the prosecution and defense team’s last chances to prove their cases. The prosecution’s goal is “burden of proof” that the defendant is guilty. While the defense tries to re-affirm that the prosecution has fallen short of its “burden of proof,” so that the jury must find the defendant “not guilty.”

Jury Instruction

After closing arguments, the next step toward is jury instruction. During this, the judge gives the jurors a set of legal standards that the jury will use to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

A judge decides what legal standards apply to the defendant’s case, based on the criminal charges and the evidence presented during the trial. Often times a judge will decide on these legal standards with input from the prosecution and defense. The judge instructs the jury on any relevant legal principles and also describes key concepts, such as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” and defines any crimes the jury is meant to consider, based on the evidence presented at trial.

The case then goes “to the jury.”

Jury Deliberation and Verdict

During “deliberation,” the jurors as a group consider the case. They will attempt to agree on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime(s) charged. Deliberation is the first opportunity the jury has to discuss the case amongst themselves. This process can last from a few hours to several weeks.

After a verdict is reached, the jury foreperson informs the judge. After that the judge announces the verdict in open court.

Most states require a jury in a criminal case be unanimous in finding a defendant “guilty” or “not guilty.” That means all jurors must agree on the final decision. If the jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict and finds itself at a standstill (also known as a “hung” jury), the judge may declare a “mistrial.” If this happens, the case may be dismissed or the trial may start over again from the jury selection stage.

Get Professional Legal Help

Being accused of a crime is not to be taken lightly. The first thing you’ll want to do is hire a skilled criminal law defense attorney. To learn how our experience and creative approach to criminal law can work to your advantage, contact our law office in Los Angeles, California. We are pleased to offer a free consultation.