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Understanding the Criminal Trial

A "trial" is the examination of facts and law presided over by a judge (or other magistrate, such as a commissioner or judge pro tem) with authority to hear the matter (jurisdiction).

A trial begins with the calling of the parties to come and be heard, and selection of a jury if one has been requested.

Each party is entitled to an opening statement by his/her attorney (or the party if he/she is representing himself/herself), limited to an outline of what each side intends to prove. The defense may withhold the opening statement until the defense is ready to present evidence.

After the opening statement(s), the evidence of the case is presented first by the prosecution (or plaintiff in a civil case.) The defense then presents its evidence. Then the prosecution (or plaintiff) and defense each present their rebuttal evidence in response to the evidence presented after the opening statements.

At the conclusion of the presentation of all evidence, each attorney (plaintiff or prosecution first) can make a final argument which can include opinion and comment on evidence and legal questions.

If it is a jury trial, the judge will give the jury a series of instructions as to the law of the case, based on "jury instructions" submitted by the attorneys and approved, rejected, modified and/or added to by the judge. Then the jury retires to the jury room, chooses a foreperson and decides the factual questions. If there is no jury, the judge will determine legal issues and decide factual questions and render (give) a judgment. A jury will judge the factual issues and decide the verdict based on the law as given by the judge in the instructions.

Final verdict or judgment usually concludes the trial, although in some criminal cases a further trial will be held to determine "special circumstances" (acts which will increase the punishment) or whether the death penalty should be imposed.

Throughout a trial there may be various motions on legal issues, some of which may be argued in the judge's chambers. In most criminal cases the exact punishment will be determined by the judge at a hearing held at a later time.

Related Terms:

  • Trial Court: The court which holds the original trial, as distinguished from a court of appeals.
  • Speedy Trial: In criminal prosecutions, it is the right of a defendant to demand a trial within a short time since to be held in jail without trial is a violation of the "due process" provision of the 5th Amendment (applied to the states by the 14th Amendment). Each state has a statute or constitutional provision limiting the time an accused person may be held before trial (e.g. 45 days). Charges must be dismissed and the defendant released if the period expires without trial. However, defendants often waive the right to a speedy trial in order to prepare a stronger defense, and if the accused is free on bail he/she will not be hurt by the waiver.
  • Court Trial: A trial with a judge but no jury.
  • Jury Trial: A trial of a lawsuit or criminal prosecution in which the case is presented to a jury and the factual questions and the final judgment are determined by a jury. This is distinguished from a "court trial" in which the judge decides factual as well as legal questions, and makes the final judgment.
  • Mistrial: The termination of a trial before its normal conclusion because of a procedural error; statements by a witness, judge or attorney which prejudice a jury; a deadlock by a jury without reaching a verdict after lengthy deliberation (a "hung" jury); or the failure to complete a trial within the time set by the court. When such situations arise, the judge, either on his own initiative or upon the motion (request) of one of the parties, will "declare a mistrial," dismiss the jury if there is one and direct that the lawsuit or criminal prosecution be set for trial again, starting from the beginning.
  • Motion for a New Trial: A request made by the loser for the case to be tried again on the basis that there were significant legal errors in the way the trial was conducted and/or that the jury or the judge (sitting without a jury) obviously came to an incorrect result. This motion must be made within a few days after the judgment is formally entered and is usually heard by the same judge who presided at the trial. Such a motion is seldom granted (particularly if the judge heard the case without a jury) unless there is some very clear error which any judge would recognize. Some lawyers feel the motion helps add to the record of argument leading to an appeal of the case to an appeals court.
  • Retrial: A new trial granted upon the motion of the losing party, based on obvious error, bias or newly discovered evidence, or after a mistrial or reversal by an appeals court.

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