Steps in the Process of a Criminal Trial

Rohan Mathew

Updated on:

The criminal trial system is one that attorney Dan Carmen and other legal professionals understand all too well. Unfortunately, many individuals may not understand the step, but thankfully, the process is rarely altered.

Grand Jury Indictment

A grand jury hearing is designed to decide if a person accused of a crime should be brought to trial. A jury consists of as many as 23 members who weigh various evidence presented by the court.

They do not declare if a person is guilty or not – they simply state that there is enough evidence to bring them to trial for a crime or if the case should be dropped instead.

These juries examine various information to gauge whether the case should go ahead, such as physical evidence, testimony from witnesses, and more types of evidence.

Sometimes, a jury of this type is a useful gauge for how a trial may progress and provides both the prosecution and the defense with the chance to examine how individuals interpret essential pieces of data for the upcoming trial.

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Jury Selection or Voir Dire

If a grand jury declares that there is enough evidence to pursue a case, the state has the decision to pursue the case or drop it – the ruling of the jury itself does not automatically trigger a case.

When the state decides to pursue criminal charges against a person, they start by choosing a jury. This process involves calling in many people and weeding out those they see fit for its purposes.

The prosecution and the defense both talk to these prospective witnesses and can strike any number they want if there is a cause, such as a potential conflict of interest.

However, they have a handful of peremptory challenges that they can use to get rid of a jury member whom they do not. After a full jury is selected for the case, the trial proper can begin with the prosecution and defense presenting their cases.

Opening Statements From Both Sides

The next step in this process is to hear the opening statements of each side. The prosecution goes first and presents a general idea of the case and the evidence that they will use to prove a defendant’s guilt.

The defense and prosecution can object to statements in this situation if needed, or the judge may rule comments immaterial. Typically, this part of the process takes up just a few hours.

Prosecution Presents Its Case

As the prosecution has the burden of evidence – meaning that they must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – they start the trial. They call witnesses, present evidence, and attempt to create an air-tight case against the defendant.

The defense then cross-examines each witness on the stand to see if they cannot find a way to disprove what the witness states. Once the state is done presenting its case, the defendant may decide to ask for a directed judgment.

This allows acquittal based on a lack of evidence. Few defendants ever win this type of statement – if the grand jury stated that there was enough evidence to pursue a case, most criminal courts are loathe to go against their opinion.

Defense Presents Its Case

The defense then gets the chance to present its case, utilizing witnesses that they have subpoenaed or evidence gathered to protect the defendant. Interestingly, the defense does not have the burden to prove innocence – they simply have to produce reasonable doubt. For example, they could show that an eye-witness has poor vision and may have misidentified the defendant in their testimony.

The prosecution then cross-examines each witness, if they like, to remove any reasonable doubt from the jury members’ minds. They can never force the defendant on the stand, but many choose to take the stand to protect their rights.

Closing Arguments From Both Sides

Like with the opening statements, the closing arguments summarize the evidence and attempt to make the case as straightforward in the jury’s mind as possible.

No new evidence can be presented during these segments – they are just a summary of what has happened. Any movie showing a criminal case being changed during these moments is inaccurate to the way most trials proceed.

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The Verdict and Judgment

After brief instructions from the judge on how to proceed, the jury retires to consider the evidence. In extensive cases, they may argue for days or even weeks before coming to a decision. All jury decisions must be unanimous and, if not, a new trial is held.

If a person is found innocent, they are free to go the moment their ruling is decided. If they are found guilty, they are taken into custody until the judge of the case decides on their punishment.

Steps After a Trial Finishes

When found guilty, a defendant has a handful of post-trial options, such as asking for a new trial or asking for a judgment of acquitment. When these fail, the defendant can attempt appeals up to the US Supreme Court. If denied here, their sentence is final.