Stages of a Criminal Trial

Stages of a Criminal Trial

The trial is perhaps the best-known part of the criminal process, but it is only one of many stages of a criminal case. Very few criminal cases ever go to trial. Prosecutors and defendants frequently reach plea agreements, by which the state might agree to reduce the charge to a lesser offense in exchange for a guilty plea. Trials must follow certain procedures that are intended to maximize the court system’s efficiency while protecting defendants’ rights.

Voir Dire

Defendants have the right to a trial by jury in many criminal cases, including all trials in the federal criminal system. A jury is usually empaneled just before the beginning of trial. The process of interviewing prospective jurors is known as voir dire.

Both the prosecutor and the defense may ask prospective jurors questions in order to identify possible biases or conflicts of interest. Each side may ask the court to strike prospective jurors for cause. They each have a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” which they may use to strike potential jurors without identifying a reason, although they may not use a peremptory challenge based solely on a group characteristic like race, gender, or ethnicity. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

Opening Statements

Once a jury is empaneled, each side may present opening statements summarizing the case that it intends to present.

Prosecution Evidence and Witnesses

The state presents its case first. It has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt, including all of the elements of the indicted offense or offenses, beyond a reasonable doubt. It can call witnesses and offer other evidence in order to meet its burden of proof. Prior to trial, the court may have suppressed evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s rights under the exclusionary rule, or it may have ordered the parties to exclude certain evidence based on a party’s motion in limine.

Motion for Directed Verdict

At the close of the state’s case, a defendant can move for a directed verdict or a judgment of acquittal, which asks the court to rule that the evidence presented by the state is “insufficient to sustain a conviction.” Most courts are limited in their discretion to grant motions like this. See Carlisle v. United States, 517 U.S. 416 (1996).

Defense Evidence and Witnesses

The defendant may present evidence and call witnesses to rebut the state’s case. The defendant is not obligated to testify, nor may the state call him or her as a witness due to the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination.

Since prosecutors have the burden of proving guilt, a defendant does not have to prove innocence. A defendant does, however, have the burden of proof for certain affirmative defenses, such as self-defense, entrapment, or insanity.

Closing Arguments

Each side may make closing arguments once it has finished presenting evidence. The arguments summarize their cases and identify flaws in the opponent’s arguments or evidence.

Jury Charge

The judge issues instructions to the jury, known as the jury charge, including questions related to the elements of the charged offense. Both the state and the defendant can submit proposed jury charges to the court.

Jury Deliberations and Verdict

The jury retires to deliberate over the evidence. In some cases, jurors are sequestered during the deliberation period, but usually they are simply instructed not to discuss the case with anyone. If the jurors cannot reach a unanimous verdict, the judge may declare a mistrial.

Post-Trial Motions

If the jury enters a guilty verdict, the defendant can bring post-trial motions, such as a motion for judgment of acquittal or a motion for new trial. If the court denies a defendant’s post-trial motions, the defendant may proceed to an appeal.