After a defendant has been formally charged with a crime, the case proceeds to the criminal trial phase, unless the defendant pleads guilty. Simply put, the four phases of a criminal trial are as follows:

  1. Pretrial motions;
  2. Trial;
  3. Sentencing; and
  4. Appeals.

What Are Pretrial Motions?

A motion is a document that is filed with the court requesting that the court do something, such as exclude or admit a specific piece of evidence. After the preliminary hearings, a pretrial motion is brought before the trial formally begins; it is imperative to note that they must be specifically requested in order to take effect. Additionally, they have considerably strict filing deadlines, and will be considered waived if not raised within this time.

Pretrial motions are intended to allow the prosecutor and the criminal defense team to appear before a criminal court judge, and present arguments and certain evidence that should be kept out of the actual trial. At this time, the teams can also present witnesses to be used during trial.

In some instances, the case may be entirely dismissed through the use of a pretrial motion. These motions can also shorten a trial. Some of the most common types of criminal pretrial motions request the court to:

  • Exclude or admit specific items of evidence;
  • Change the venue of the trial;
  • Allow or prevent witnesses from testifying;
  • Exclude or suppress a defendant’s confession or statement;
  • Compel the opposing party to release evidence; and/or
  • Dismiss the case altogether.

What Is A Criminal Trial?

In a criminal trial, the trier of fact determines whether the defendant committed the crime. The standard that is used in criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt;” meaning, there is no reasonable doubt in the judge or jurors’ minds that the defendant committed the crime.

A criminal trial has the following phases:

  • Jury Selection: A pool of potential jurors is gathered and asked a number of questions. The prosecution and defense each 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 generally goes first, followed by the defense;
  • Witness Testimony: Each side calls witnesses and asks them questions about the case, and/or the defendant. The prosecution calls their witnesses, who can then be cross examined by the defense. The defense then calls their witnesses, who can be cross examined by the prosecution;
  • Closing Arguments: The prosecution, and then the defense, make a brief statement which summarizes their side of the case;
  • Jury Instruction: The judge explains to the jurors the crime that the defendant was charged with, as well as the legal standard that they must apply when determining whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of committing that crime; and
  • Verdict: The jury considers the evidence that was presented, then 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.

What Is Sentencing?

Sentencing refers to how a guilty party is punished. In some cases, sentencing occurs right after the plea bargain or verdict. However, in more complicated cases, a separate hearing is held and the judge hears arguments from both sides regarding what the proper punishment should be.

For some crimes, sentencing is explicitly stated by the law, and as such the judge has limited discretion. For other crimes, the judge has considerable discretion in determining the proper punishment. The most common examples of punishments include:

  • Fines;
  • Probation;
  • Jail time;
  • Community service; and
  • Restitution, such as paying back money that was stolen or compensating the victim for property that was damaged or destroyed.

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense, in which the prosecution offers to drop or reduce some charges. Alternatively, they may offer to recommend a certain sentence to the judge. This is done in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest from the defendant.

It is up to the defendant to accept the plea bargain, or reject it and send the case to trial. Once the defendant rejects a plea bargain, they cannot retract the previous plea offered; this is true even if the defendant receives a harsher penalty. Additionally, they must accept the plea bargain knowingly and voluntarily. Before accepting the defendant’s plea bargain, the judge must ensure that the defendant knows of their rights to trial, and the consequences in waiving that right.

What Are Appeals?

If someone is convicted and they feel that the conviction was unfair or unlawful, they can ask a higher court to review the conviction. However, an appeal can only be based on a legal error; meaning, 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; and/or
  • Jury instructions that were improper.

In an appeal, the prosecution and defense each file briefs arguing their position, which are reviewed by the higher court. 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 the conviction should be upheld.

Appeals can be granted whole, in part, or completely denied; and, if the appeal is granted, the appellate court may completely dismiss the charges. Alternatively, the appellate court may order an entirely new trial. If the appellate court completely denies the appeal, the defendant may then appeal the case to the state’s highest court; however, the state’s highest court does not have to review the appeal, as it is completely discretionary.

Your plea at trial does not necessarily affect your right to an appeal. This is because trials are appealable, regardless of a person’s plea at trial. To reiterate, appeals are based on errors of law, as well as the preservation of those errors. Additionally, as was previously mentioned, some defendants do not disagree that they are guilty; rather, they disagree with the sentencing, as they believe that the sentencing was improper and/or unfair.

It is important to note that if you have been convicted and sentenced for a crime as a result of your own guilty plea, your right to appeal is limited. Under specific circumstances, it may be possible to submit a conditional plea bargain or a plea of “no contest,” which would allow you to appeal certain pre-trial issues.

An example of this would be if the trial court concluded that evidence cannot be used, even if the defendant believes that that evidence is what proves their innocence. In these circumstances, a conditional plea entered may allow the defendant to appeal the ruling regarding the evidence.

Do I Need A Lawyer For A Criminal Case?

If you are involved in a criminal case, you will need to work with an area criminal defense attorney. An experienced and local lawyer will be best suited to helping you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific criminal laws. Additionally, your lawyer will also be able to represent you in court, while guiding you through the trial phase of a criminal case.