Criminal Trial Process

Learn about the criminal trial process, from the arrest to the verdict, a step by step synopsis of a criminal court trial.

The process of a criminal trial starts when an individual is arrested, or charges are filed for a warrant. Within 2 to 48 hours of initial arrest, the defendant must have his informal arraignment. During this time, the defendant is informed of the charges against him. If the defendant has not already been mirandized, he will be informed of his rights. Even if this has already taken place, he will be informed again of his right to counsel. If the charge is not murder, bail will be set. If the charge is for murder, bail may be set, at the discretion of the judge. The defendant will then be notified of when and where to appear next, then will be allowed to leave if bail has been set, or he will be remanded into custody.

The next step is the preliminary hearing, if the case is on the state level. This takes place usually 7 to 10 days after the informal arraignment. The defendant goes before a district justice, whom determines if the case merits going any farther. The prosecution must prove by a prima facie case that the charges are valid. The prosecution will call witnesses and show evidence. Typically the defense will not.

If the case is to be remanded to federal court, there is not a preliminary hearing. Instead, the defendant goes before a grand jury. The grand jury is made up of 23 citizens. Grand jury hearings are private. The public may not attend, nor may reporters be present. In fact, the defendant's lawyer may not even be present. However, the defendant may leave the courtroom to confer with his attorney when he feels the need. Unlike actual trials, guilt may be inferred by the defendant exercising his right not to testify.

Within the next 30 days, the formal arraignment takes place. The filing of Informations, which is a list of those charges accepted in the preliminary trial, are recorded. The defendant may then plead for each charge. Typically, defendants plead not guilty, or stand mute.

After 30 more days pass, the pre-trial conference is held. Both the defense and prosecuting lawyers meet with the Judge. While pre-trial motions should have already been filed, most lawyers wait until now to file them. The judge typically allows this to avoid the possibility of an appeal.

This leads to the guilt phase, assuming the defendant decided not to plead "not guilty" during the formal arraignment. Pleas may be open, meaning they have no involvement from the prosecution, or they may be negotiated. If the defense negotiates a plea with the prosecution, the judge must approve it as well. If the defendant pleads 'Guilty', he is admitting to factual guilt. The defendant may also plea 'nolo contendre' which means no contest. This means the defendant will accept any sentence handed down, but does not admit factual guilt. It is no different than a guilty plea for this hearing, but prevents a later trial from using a guilty plea against him. Further, the defendant may also plead conditionally, stating he will plead guilty but wishes to keep certain appeal rights he would usually lose. Finally, the last guilt type please is that of an Alford plea. In an Alford plea the defendant is pleading guilty, but asserting factual innocence. This happens when a defendant says he is innocent, but will plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid the possibility of a death sentence.

If the defendant had not pleaded guilty, and instead stated he was not guilty, the case would move onto the trial phase. First a jury must be selected. The process of jury selection is known as the Voir Dire. The group from who are eligible to be picked to serve on the jury is known as the Venire. The jury may be kept sequestered, meaning they are isolated from the media while the trial takes place to keep them impartial.

At the next step, the judge will give opening instructions to the jury. This step is optional. However, it usually takes place, since most jurors will not be experts on the law and will need concepts explained.

Next, the opening statements are heard. The point of the opening statements are for the attorneys to form a relationship with the jury, as well as establish credibility. The prosecution goes first, followed by the defense.

The case-in-chief follows. This is the evidentiary section of the trial. The prosecution will call their witnesses, one at a time. For each witness, the prosecution will perform a direct examination. The attorney will attempt to establish the facts of the case with these witnesses, as well as using their testimony to being in physical evidence. During direct examination, the witness may not be led. After the prosecution is done with one of its witnesses, the defense may cross-examine. He will attempt to challenge the credibility of the witness. During a cross-examination, leading the witness is allowed. At this point, the prosecution may re-direct, to try to clear up any issues with the witness the defense may have created. Of course, then the defense may re-cross. This can go on endlessly until both sides are done with a witness, and the next is called.

After the prosecution rests, the jury is excused. At this point, the lawyers will argue over evidence with the judge, and usually the defense will ask for a motion of demurrer. This is a motion to have the case dismissed due to a lack of evidence. If the judge accepts the motion, the defendant is held as not guilty. If the judge does not accept the motion, the Defense attorney may begin his case. He will then call his witnesses, and directly examine them. The rolls of the lawyers have reversed, with the defense directly examining, and the prosecution in the roll of cross-examining.

Once the defense rests, the prosecution will then start its rebuttal. The purpose of this is to comment on evidence used by the defense. For example, if the defense calls a witness to establish an alibi, during rebuttal the prosecution may have a witness testify that the alibi is not true. The defense may then have a surrebuttal, to further argue points. It can go on back and forth infinitely until both sides are satisfied.

Once both sides have finished, closing statements begin. On the state level, the defense goes first, and then the prosecution gives its closing statements. For federal courts, the prosecution gives their statements, followed by the defense, and then the prosecution may give another statement.

The judge will then give closing instructions to the jury on how to proceed. The jury will come back with a verdict once a unanimous 12 to 0 decision is reached. The judge will poll the jury, to verify each juror has come to the same decision. If the verdict is not guilty, the defendant is free to go. If he is found guilty, and he is sentenced to serve time, he will be remanded into custody.

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