What You Need to Know About Criminal Trials

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 What is a Criminal Trial?

A criminal trial is when the state or federal government brings a case against the accused that details the alleged charges against the defendant. A plea bargain will be made before trial, often sparing the government the cost of trial and possibly giving the defendant a more favorable sentence. For those who do go to trial, it is usually a jury of their peers that will decide upon guilt or innocence.

In criminal law, it must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. This burden of proof is much higher than in civil law. There are rules, called sentencing guidelines, which the court will follow in determining a defendant’s sentence. In more serious cases, probation and parole will also be a part of the sentence for convicted individuals.

Who Decides the Outcome of a Criminal Trial?

A criminal trial will often be decided by a jury who is pulled from the community. Juries act as fact finders by listening to the prosecution and defense and how persuasive the evidence is for both sides. In jury trials, the judge handles questions of law while the jury handles questions of fact.

A judge can also decide trials. This is most commonly associated with civil law. A bench trial may be requested by a criminal defendant, in which case the judge will be responsible for coming to a verdict on both law and fact questions. Sometimes there is a benefit to a bench trial over a jury trial. If the case is emotionally charged and the public opinion is overwhelmingly against the defendant’s favor, a bench trial may provide the most favorable outcome for a defendant. Even though the jury is meant to listen to the case on its merits, sometimes it is too difficult to ignore outside influences.

How Is a Jury Selected?

The Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial for criminal charges. Juries are also guaranteed in certain civil matters at the state and federal levels. A jury is responsible for finding the facts of the case after reviewing the evidence and deliberating.

States and counties maintain lists of citizens for possible jury selection. The lists have compiled information from the Department of Motor Vehicles, voter registrations, phone books, and other sources that list potential jurors’ names. From this list, names are randomly drawn.

Once names are drawn for jury selection, each prospective juror receives a court-ordered jury summons with the date and time of service in the mail. A prospective juror will never receive a notice of jury service by phone. All necessary instructions are provided on the summons.

Jury service can be rescheduled for a different date. If this is an option, instructions will be included in the summons.

If a juror fails to show up for jury service, the judge can issue a bench warrant. A bench warrant is an arrest warrant that authorizes police to arrest you. As a first offense, the punishment is typically a fine. Repeated offenses may result in jail time.

Jury summons provides information about exemptions from jury service. Exemptions from jury duty typically include:

  • Under the age of 18
  • Not a U.S. Citizen
  • Have been convicted of a disqualifying felony
  • Not a resident of the county
  • Request to be excused or disqualified
  • Mental or physical disqualifying condition

There may be additional exemptions that apply in your state or county.

The jury process varies from state to state and county to county. Some courts have a call-in system, where you call the court and ask if you are needed. Other courts have jurors show up to the courthouse and sit in a waiting area until called for potential jury duty.

You will not be paid unless you are chosen to sit on a jury. If you are selected for jury service, you will be paid. You may or may not receive travel expenses for mileage and parking.

Of all the people called for jury service on any given day, a group will be selected and asked to enter a courtroom. The rest of the potential jurors wait for other juries.

There will be a judge, an attorney for each side, a court reporter, a county clerk, and a bailiff in the courtroom. The parties and their attorneys are often present.

The judge will introduce the civil or criminal case and introduce all of the people in the courtroom. The judge will state the rules and the procedures that must be followed for jury selection.

Next, the judge will begin the juror’s requests for dismissal. The judge typically looks for twelve people with two or three alternatives out of the prospective jurors. States vary on the number of jurors required. The jury selection process differs, but prospective jurors are given an opportunity to state why they should be excused. The judge does not have to accept any excuse, but they generally try to be accommodating.

Valid excuses tend to be:

  • Economic troubles
  • Family issues
  • Previous jury service in the last year
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Conflict of interest

There may be other excuses available. Inform the judge if you believe a hardship will make it difficult to serve on a jury panel. The judge evaluates excuses on a case-by-case basis.

Each attorney has the chance to object to jurors. There are two types of objections:

  • Dismissed for Cause: There are unlimited numbers of challenges for cause. When an attorney challenges a juror for cause, there was most likely something in the juror’s background that would prejudice them in the case.
  • Dismissed for Peremptory Challenge: Attorneys seek to excuse jurors that they do not believe will be favorable to their case. Attorneys cannot use peremptory challenges based on race or gender.

What Does a Criminal Trial Consist of?

There are several phases of a criminal trial:

  • Jury selection;
  • Opening statements;
  • Witness testimony;
  • Closing arguments;
  • Jury instructions;
  • Jury deliberation; and
  • Verdict.

The trial is over once the verdict is in, and the sentencing phase can begin. The court will then determine a suitable sentence for the defendant. Those convicted of a crime may appeal the conviction by asking a higher court to review their case.

What Happens If One of the Parties Are Unsatisfied with the Trial Result?

If the defense disagrees with the trial results, they can appeal to a higher court. If the defendant was found not guilty, and the prosecution disagrees with the decision, they are out of luck. The Double Jeopardy Clause protects citizens under the 5th Amendment from being tried twice for the same crime.

However, if serious errors were made within the trial that led to an unfair result, or new evidence has come to light, a judge may order the case to be retried in the interest of justice.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Criminal Trial?

While it is possible to defend yourself in a criminal trial, it is not recommended. It is also possible to receive a court-appointed lawyer. However, many legal justice systems are overrun with cases and have too few lawyers on staff. If you want to ensure the best possible outcome for your case, contact a local criminal lawyer. Do not let a simple mistake like not hiring a private attorney result in a wrongful conviction.


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