The criminal trial process can be confusing for many in Lancaster County, some of whom have never been charged with a crime before. After you are charged, an arraignment is conducted, discovery has been completed, and all preliminary hearings and pre-trial motions have passed, it is time for the actual trial. The following is a brief overview of what to expect during the trial process.
Before trial begins: Selecting a jury
Before a trial can commence, the prosecutor and defense attorney must select a jury. The role of a juror is to listen to all facts presented at trial to determine if the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the jury selection process 12 people will be chosen at random from a pool of jurors. The prosecutor and defense attorney are prohibited from discriminating when selecting jurors. Juries should represent people of all races and cultures. If a juror has a bias upon questioning, that juror may be excused. In addition, the prosecution and defense attorney can excuse a juror for no reason by exercising a certain number of “peremptory challenges.”
The trial begins: Opening statements
At the beginning of the trial both the prosecutor and the defense attorney may make an opening statement. In this statement they will outline their account of the events. These are short statements made before witnesses are questioned or evidence is submitted. The prosecution will always make the opening statement first because they bear the burden of proving the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The trial continues: Presentations and objections
Once opening statements are made, the prosecutor can begin directly examining witnesses. After a witness is examined — that is, questioned — by the prosecution, the defense attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine that witness. Cross-examination can poke holes in the credibility of the witness’ statements. In addition, during direct examination evidence can be introduced regarding the alleged crime. Following cross-examination, the prosecutor can question the witness to clarify any confusing testimony. The is known as “redirect examination.”
After the prosecutor rests its case, it is the defense’s turn to examine witnesses, who will be subjected to cross-examination by the prosecution, and then be subject to redirect examination by the defense. The defense can also introduce evidence at this point. The defendant may or may not testify, and the fact that a defendant did not testify cannot be used by the jury to prove guilt. It is not the defense’s burden to prove the defendant is innocent. In the U.S., defendants are innocent until proven guilty and it is the prosecutor’s burden to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Throughout direct and cross-examination either side can make an objection to a question made or piece of evidence presented. The judge will determine if an objection should be sustained or denied. Hearsay is a common objection. Hearsay statements made by a witness who only learned about the subject they are being questioned on second-hand, for example, from another person, a newspaper or a document. Hearsay statements cannot be considered by a jury. Relevance is another common objection. A witness’s testimony and evidence submitted must be relevant to the case at issue. If it is not relevant it cannot be considered by the jury.
The trial ends: Closing arguments, jury deliberations and a verdict
After the prosecuting attorney and defense have presented their case, examined witnesses and presented evidence, it is time for closing arguments. This is the last chance each side has to let the jury know why they believe the defendant should/should not be found guilty. Following that the jury will be given instructions by the judge of the laws at issue and what is required of them to reach a verdict.
Following that, the jury will go to a private room to deliberate, that is, discuss whether the defendant should be found guilty or not. During deliberations, no one involved in the trial can contact the jury. If it is a federal trial, the jury’s decision to state the defendant is guilty must be unanimous. Once the jury reaches an agreement, the judge and attorneys will be notified. The court will be open, and the verdict read. If the jury decides the defendant is “not guilty” the defendant can leave freely.
Learn more about the criminal trial process
If you are facing a criminal charge, it is natural to feel confused and frightened. After all, your freedom is on the line. Arming yourself with information on your rights throughout the trial process can go a long way to ensuring you remain calm and understand what is going on.