The trial is the best-known aspect of the criminal and judicial process, but it is just one of the many stages of a criminal case. It is important to know all of the phases of a criminal trial because few criminal cases ever make it all the way to the courtroom. It is common for prosecutors and defendants to reach plea deals; this is where the state could agree to reduce a charge to a less serious offense in exchange for a plea of guilty. Trials need to follow required procedures that are designed to maximize the efficiency of the court system while also protecting the rights of the defendant.
As the defendant, you have the right to a jury trial in many criminal cases, including all trials in the federal criminal justice system. Usually, a jury will be empaneled just before the start of the trial. This process of interviewing possible jurors is called voir dire.
The prosecutor and the defense could ask possible jurors various questions to identify potential biases or any conflicts of interest. Each side can request the court to strike certain possible jurors for cause. They each are limited in their number of peremptory challenges, which may be used to eliminate questionable jurors without stating a reason.
Once the jury has been empaneled for the trial, each side has the option of presenting opening statements. This allows the prosecution and the defense to summarize the case that it is going to present.
The government has the burden of proof regarding your guilt, so its opening statement comes first. The defense comes next. There are no witnesses to testify at this point and no physical evidence is usually allowed.
The government’s opening statement usually is longer because it has the burden of proof. In some trials, the defense could wait until the end of the trial before making an opening statement.
Prosecution Evidence and Witnesses
The prosecution for the state presents its case first. It has the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, including all elements of the indicted offense or offenses. It is allowed to call witnesses and offer other evidence to meet the burden of proof.
Before trial, the court could have suppressed certain evidence obtained in violation of the rights of the defendant under the exclusionary rule. Or, it could have ordered both parties to exclude evidence based upon a party’s motion.
During this process, the government will provide its evidence that you committed said crime beyond a reasonable doubt. At this time, the prosecutor will probably call witnesses and possible experts to testify. The state may also introduce photographs, documents and medical reports.
Motion for Directed Verdict
At the close of the case for the state, the defendant can move for a directed verdict or judgment of acquittal. This is where the defense asks the court to rule that evidence presented is not enough for a conviction. Most courts have limits in their discretion to grant such motions.
Defense Evidence and Witnesses
The defendant could present evidence and call witnesses to rebut the case the state has. As the defendant, you are not required to testify, nor can the state call you as a witness due to your Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
As the prosecutor has the requirement of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as the defendant, you do not need to prove your innocence. But you do have the burden of proof for some affirmative defenses, including entrapment, insanity or self defense.
At the end of the criminal trial, each side has the option to make closing arguments once it has concluded the presentation of evidence. The arguments provide a summary of each side’s case and identify any flaws in the arguments or evidence for the other side.
In its closing argument, the government will try to show why the evidence shows that the jury must find you guilty. Also, the defense will try to show that the government fell short of the burden of proof.
At the conclusion of the criminal trial prior to a jury decision, the judge will provide instructions to the jury, which is called the jury charge. This includes questions that are related to the elements of the offense that has been charged. Both the defendant and the state can submit potential jury charges to the court for its consideration.
The judge is responsible for determining the legal standards that should be applied to your case, based upon the nature of the charges and evidence presented. Sometimes, this process will take place with input and argument from the defense and prosecution. The judge will then instruct the jury on important legal principles, such as findings the jury will need to get a certain conclusion. The judge also describes important legal concepts, such as ‘guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’
Jury Deliberations and Verdict
At this point, the jury will retire to consider the evidence that was presented during the trial. In some trials, the jurors will be sequestered during the deliberation period. But usually they are just instructed to not discuss the case with anyone outside of the jury. If the jury cannot come to a unanimous verdict, the judge may say it is a mistrial.
Post Trial Motions
If the jury finds you guilty, you have the right to bring post-trial motions, such as motion for judgment of acquittal or motion for new trial. If the court does not grant the post trial motions, the defendant may request an appeal.
So What's Next
If you have been charged with a crime in Massachusetts or another state, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner. Attorney Geoffrey Nathan can help you mount a strong legal defense. For a criminal defense legal consultation, please contact him at (617) 472-5775.