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The Trial Phase of a Criminal Case

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The Four Phases of a Criminal Trial

A typical criminal case has several different phases. Unless a guilty plea is entered, criminal cases are resolved by trial. The following is a summary of what happens if a criminal case goes to trial.

Pre-Trial Motions

  • Pre-trial motions are made by the prosecution and the defense before the trial begins, and can deal with a variety of different issues.
  • Common types of pre-trial motions include motions to exclude certain evidence from trial, motions to prevent certain witnesses from testifying, and motions that the case should be dismissed for some legal reason.


  • In a criminal trial, the trier of fact (which can be either the judge or a jury) decides whether the defendant committed the crime.
  • The standard used in criminal cases is "beyond a reasonable doubt" - that is, there is no reasonable doubt in the judge or jurors' minds that the defendant committed the crime.
  • A criminal trial has several phases:
    • Jury selection - A pool of potential jurors is gathered, and asked a number of questions. The prosecution and defense each can choose to exclude a certain number of people from the jury.
    • Opening statements - Each side presents an overview of the case, from their perspective. The prosecution goes first, followed by the defense.
    • Witness testimony - Each side can call witnesses and ask them questions about the case and/or the defendant. First, the prosecution calls their witnesses, who can then be cross examined by the defense. Then, the defense calls their witnesses, who can be cross examined by the prosecution.
    • Closing arguments - The prosecution, and then the defense, make a brief statement summarizing their side of the case.
    • Jury Instruction - The judge addresses the jurors, explaining to them the crime the defendant was charged with, and the legal standard they must apply when deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of committing that crime.
    • Verdict - The jury weighs the evidence presented, applies the proper legal standard, and decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
  • In most states, a criminal verdict must come from a unanimous jury.


  • If a person is convicted of a crime, either by a plea bargain or by a trial, the term "sentencing" refers to how they are punished.
  • In some cases, sentencing occurs right after the plea bargain or verdict.
  • In more complicated cases, a separate hearing is held on the issue of sentencing, and the judge hears arguments from both sides as to what the proper punishment should be.
  • For some crimes, sentencing is explicitly stated by the law, and the judge has limited discretion. For other crimes, the judge has wide discretion in determining the proper punishment.
  • Types of punishments can include fines, probation, jail time, community service, and restitution (paying back money that was stolen, or compensating the victim for property that was damaged or destroyed).


  • If someone is convicted, and they feel that the conviction was unfair or unlawful, they can ask a higher court to review the conviction.
  • An appeal can only be based on a legal error. An error of law must have occurred at some point in the process in order for an appeal to be successful.
  • Examples of errors of law include a motion that was improperly granted or denied, evidence that was improperly admitted or excluded, or jury instructions that were improper.
  • In an appeal, the prosecution and defense each file written documents called "briefs", arguing their position. The briefs are reviewed by the higher court, and in some cases the lawyers for each side must make their argument orally in front of the appellate court judges. The judges then decide whether or not the conviction should be upheld.

Do I Need A Lawyer?

At any stage of a criminal case, it is important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney. The criminal law system is very complicated, and it is important to have someone on your side who understands the law and the process. If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A criminal defense attorney can inform you of your rights, guide you through the process, and argue on your behalf.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 02-28-2018 07:33 PM PST

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