So You’re Going to Trial…Now What?
While it is not pleasant to think about, innocent people are accused of crimes. If such a misfortune happens to you, it is important for you to be educated regarding how the criminal justice system works. The purpose of this article is to give you an idea of how the process works should you be accused of a criminal offense and the case fails to be brought to a close before trial.
Most cases are settled before they ever see the inside of a courtroom. However, this does not mean it’s a rarity for trials to occur. Nowadays, one would be hard pressed to find a district attorney’s office that does not go to trial weekly in any large county.
Preparing to Attend Trial
Before we dive into the trial process, we need to address a few preliminaries for you to consider:
1. Dress nicely. It is important for the jury to know, as well as the other members of the courtroom, that you respect the process and take the matter seriously. While it is not necessary to wear a suit, you should at least wear proper dress clothes (I always tell my clients to wear dark colors – to match the seriousness of the occasion). If you’re on trial for driving while intoxicated or possession of marijuana, now is not the time to make a political statement by wearing your favorite Budweiser or Bob Marley T-shirt.
2. Be actively involved in the trial. Bring a tablet or legal pad and take notes. This not only lets the jury know that you’re involved and taking the case seriously, it also keeps you from making faces at testimony that you may not find credible (something the jury can, and often does, misinterpret as anger on your behalf).
3. Finally, always be on time.
Individuals and Their Roles at Trial
There are a number of people you are likely encounter in the courtroom. If you’ve ever watched a court television program or a lawyer movie, you should be familiar with each person’s role in the courtroom. Such individuals include:
- The judge: The judge is like the referee of the courtroom; he makes all the important decisions and enforces the rules as he sees fit.
- The prosecutor: The prosecutor is an attorney for the government – he/she is also the person trying to convince the jury that you are guilty of the crime alleged.
- The court reporter: The court reporter is the person responsible for recording everything that is said in the courtroom (this is usually done on a machine called a “stenograph” which resembles a typewriter with legs).
- The court clerk or coordinator: The court clerk or coordinator will be responsible for making sure that everything is organized according to the judge’s wishes as well as making sure everything is scheduled as it should be.
- The bailiff: The bailiff is usually a law enforcement officer from the local sheriff’s office who has decided that the slower pace of the courtroom environment fits his physical fitness needs.
- The jury: The jury consists of 6 or 12 people (depending on the nature of the charges brought against you) from the county who will listen to the testimony and the facts of the case. The jury also decides whether you’re guilty of the crime alleged by the prosecutor.
- Witnesses: These are the witnesses who will testify to the court and before the jury as to what they saw and what they know about your case.
- Spectators: Additionally, you may see any spectators bored enough to come to the courthouse for entertainment.
I. Voir Dire
The first portion of a trial is known as “voir dire.” Voir dire is the process in which the attorneys speak with and question the potential jurors. The purpose of voir dire is simply to get to know the jury. Lawyers will ask about their feelings regarding certain issues as a means of trying to uncover a bias. Uncovering such biases will allow the lawyers to determine whether or not the members of the jury pool (known as the “venire”) will be good for their case. Each lawyer gets a certain number of “strikes.” A strike allows a lawyer to remove a member of the venire from the list of potential jurors.
Despite popular belief, members of a potential jury are not “picked” rather those with too great of a bias are struck and the remaining members of the venire are on the jury. Due to the importance of acquiring an unbiased jury, voir dire is often considered the most important part of the trial proceedings.
II. Opening Statements
The next stage of the trial is opening statements. This is when each side has the opportunity to give the jury a summary of their case. Often, the lawyers try to lay a road map of the anticipated trial so that jurors will know what to expect. Do not be surprised if you do not hear your lawyer arguing your case and beating the podium at this point. As stated, these introductions are called opening statements and anything that is considered “argumentative” is forbidden.
III. The Prosecution’s Case and Direct Examination
Once opening statements are made, the state will present its case. This means that the prosecutor will call police officers and other witnesses to testify that you are guilty. Due to the fact that the state has the burden of proof (that is, has to prove your guilt), they get to go first.
IV. Cross Examination
After the state has finished questioning a witness, your lawyer will, in most instances, cross examine the witness. Unlike direct examination when the witness is simply asked to tell what they saw, cross examination probes the witness for inconsistencies, firsthand knowledge, bias, and blatant lies. A skilled defense attorney can often make the most competent of witnesses look unqualified, unsure, and uncover deceit.
V. The Directed Verdict
Due to the fact that it is the prosecutor’s duty to find you guilty, the defense can use a special motion to end the trial early if all of the required elements of the offense are not present. Once the prosecutor calls all of the state’s witnesses, the defense can request for a “directed verdict.” If the judge finds that there is not enough evidence for charges against you to go forward, the motion is granted, and the case is dismissed without the jury ever having to deliberate. While not unheard of, having such a motion granted is rare.
If the judge does not grant the directed verdict, or if your attorney does not request one, then the defense has the option of bringing evidence for its own case. Due to the fact that it’s the prosecutor’s job to prove the facts, this portion of the trial is completely at the option of the defense. It is not uncommon for a defense attorney to bring no evidence on behalf of the client if the attorney believes that the prosecutor has not done his or her job of proving your guilt.
VI. Closing Arguments
Once all of the evidence has been heard, the lawyers make their closing arguments. Closing argument is exactly what the name suggests. Unlike opening statements, argument is allowed. This is your attorney’s time to put your case together and argue the facts of your case. As with voir dire, cases are won or lost at this stage in the trial. In fact, all of your lawyers work has been building up to this moment.
VII. Jury Deliberation
Once all the arguments have been heard and all the decisions regarding evidence have been decided, the jury is then allowed to retire to the jury room and begin deliberations. What many do not understand is that this will be the first time members of the jury get to discuss issues regarding the case. Up until now, there is a rule which strictly forbids jurors from discussing the facts of your case. The deliberations usually begin with the jury electing a foreperson. A foreperson guides the juror deliberations and will be the member of the jury responsible for communicating with the court (such communication is only allowed to be in the form of notes that are passed to the court through the bailiff).
VIII. The Verdict
After the jury has deliberated and returns with a verdict, the verdict is read before the court. Generally, the judge will ask the jury if they have reached a decision, and if the decision is unanimous. If both of these questions are answered in the affirmative the judge will then ask the foreperson to pass him the verdict. The judge will then instruct the defendant (you) to rise, and read one of two possible verdicts; “guilty” or “not guilty.”
If You are Found Guilty: Punishment
If you’re found guilty, the final stage of the trial process is “sentencing.” Sentencing may occur via two methods: either you select the jury to choose your punishment or you select the judge to decide your punishment. If you selected the jury, the sentencing will proceed much like the earlier stages of the trial with witness testimony. If you selected the judge for punishment, then often times the judge will release the jury and have you take part of a presentencing investigation.
A presentencing investigation is an investigation in which a court employee (usually a probation officer) researches your character and background to see what punishment suits you best. If you have no prior criminal history and are convicted of a nonviolent crime, then often the investigator will advise the court that probation along with case specific classes are in your best interest. In you have an extensive criminal history or are convicted of a violent crime (or just one that is particularly disagreeable), you stand a good chance of being sentenced to jail.
If You are Found Not Guilty: Acquittal
If you are acquitted (that is, found “not guilty”) then the trial is over and the judge will announce that you may “go henceforth without delay” as a means of signaling that you are no longer under the burden of criminal charges. However, it is important to note that, even if you are found not guilty, a record of your arrest still exists. If you wish for your entire criminal record (including the arrest) to be sealed, you must apply for an expunction.