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A Beginner's Guide to Trials

Most people have only seen trials on TV. Short, dramatic, unexpected, and very entertaining. Real-life trials follow a certain order, last for days, and the surprises are usually kept to a minimum. If you are charged with a crime, and you want to go to trial, here is what you can expect:

  • A series of court dates leading up to trial that sort out some of the legal issues, discovery and evidence issues, and make sure that both parties are prepared for trial. Read about different court dates here.
  • On the morning of your trial, there will likely be multiple, even dozens of cases set for trial. The Judge will spend the morning resolving cases, and narrowing down which cases are actually ready for trial. They will decide which cases go first based on factors such as: Has your right to speedy trial been waived? Are you currently in jail? How long will your trial take?
  • This is your last chance to accept any offers—as soon as the jury arrives at your courtroom, State Attorneys usually revoke any offers. At this point, the decision of guilt is left with the jury, and you are facing up to the maximum penalties if you are found guilty.

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So, your case is going to trial. How does trial work? What is involved? Here are the basic components of trial:

  • Jury Selection: Also called voir dire, this is where you and your attorney decide which 6 people listen to the evidence on your case and decide whether to find you guilty or not guilty. The Judge will talk to the jurors first, followed by the State Attorney, and then your attorney will speak to them last. The Judge and attorneys will focus on asking questions that will help to determine if the jurors can be fair. After everyone is done talking to the jurors, you will help your attorney decide which jurors you like the least, and remove them from the jury. The State Attorney will also have the opportunity to remove the jurors they don’t like. At the end of jury selection, you will have 6 jurors (and an alternate).
  • Opening Statements: The trial begins with statements by both sides about what evidence they expect to be presented and what that evidence will prove. The State Attorney goes first, and usually discusses what witnesses they will call, what tangible evidence they will introduce, and how that evidence will prove the crime they believe was committed. Next, your attorney will give a statement about how the evidence will not prove the charges, and may discuss any possible defenses or witnesses that they are planning on presenting.
  • State’s Case: Because the State Attorney has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the crimes were committed, they are responsible for presenting all of the evidence that they believe will prove that you committed the crimes. During this part of trial, the State Attorney presents their witnesses and evidence. The State Attorney will ask each witness for their story and observations. After each witness, your attorney has the chance to cross examine—ask questions that may affect the credibility of the witness, gather helpful evidence for your case, or point out problems in the State’s evidence.
  • Judgment of Acquittal (JOA): After the State is done showing the jury all of their evidence, your attorney may ask to have the case dismissed because the State’s evidence was insufficient to prove the crimes. If the State Attorney failed to present any evidence to prove one of the elements of the crime, identification, or location (venue), then the Judge may dismiss the case or reduce the charges.
  • Defense’s Case: At this point, if you have any witnesses or tangible evidence, your attorney will present them to the jury. Your attorney will ask your witnesses questions, then the State Attorney will cross examine the witnesses. This is your opportunity to testify if you want—it is your decision, however your attorney can help you make that decision. Just remember that if you decide to testify, your felony record can be introduced, along with crimes of dishonesty, and you WILL be cross examined by the State Attorney.
  • Judgment of Acquittal (JOA): After the Defense Case, your attorney may again ask for the Judge to dismiss the case. If the Judge finds that no reasonable juror could find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on the evidence, then they may grant the JOA and dismiss the charges.
  • Closing Arguments: This is part of the case where your attorney tries to persuade the jury to find you not guilty. The State Attorney begins and tries to convince the jury that the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. Your attorney goes next. Your attorney will likely argue how there is reasonable doubt in the evidence, how some of the witnesses may have conflicting stories, or the evidence can be interpreted another way. They may also discuss your defense strategy or any evidence that you presented that shows your innocence. At the end of their closing argument, the State Attorney has the chance to argue the evidence again to the jury, and after their statements, the trial is done. Your attorney does not get another chance to talk to the jurors.
  • Deliberations: The Judge will explain jury instructions to the jurors, then send them to the jury room to deliberate and make a decision on the case. Jurors may deliberate for just a few minutes, or they may take days.
  • Verdict: Once the jury has come to a unanimous agreement, the Judge will read the verdict. If the verdict is Not Guilty of all counts, your charges are dismissed and your case is over. If you are found Guilty of any charges, you will be sentenced.
Thinking about trial in your criminal case? Call Colbert Law at (407) 705-3220!