Jury Trial: What Does Your Day in Court Look Like?

Posted by Nathan Hitchcock | May 10, 2018 | 0 Comments

You and the District Attorney were unable to resolve your case, so your case has proceeded to trial. Jury selection has wrapped up and now your big day has arrived. Depending on the number of witnesses and complexity of the legal issues, a jury trial can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.

Prior to beginning the trial, any unresolved evidentiary issues must first be addressed.  Oftentimes, attorneys will file motions to address certain evidentiary issues prior to the trial, so both sides know whether or not a specific piece of evidence will be admitted or excluded for trial.  The purpose is to ensure that neither side is unduly prejudiced by surprise with an unexpected ruling at trail.  Evidentiary issues could relate to whether evidence is relevant, whether evidence is prejudicial, or if there is a legal basis for the evidence being excluded.  It's important to note that I'm referring to evidentiary issues, not constitutional violations, as those issues would have been resolved long before the trial at a motion to suppress evidence hearing.  After all evidentiary issues are discussed, the jury is brought into the room, and the clerk an oath, obligating the jurors to remain impartial in your case. This oath is important, as once the jury takes the oath, issues like Double Jeopardy come into play. Essentially, Double Jeopardy is a legal concept that states you cannot stand trial twice for the same crime. Double Jeopardy “attaches” once a jury is sworn in, but not before.

After the jury is sworn in, the State and the Defense present their opening statements.  Opening statements are not evidence.  Instead, they operate as roadmaps for the case, allowing each side to explain their view of the case and what they expect the jury to hear during the trial.  Following opening statements, the State presents their case in chief.  Since the State has the burden to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, they're required to present their evidence first. In many case, this might only involve a single police officer testifying while in more complex cases like arson or murder, dozens of people may testify.  Witnesses can be eyewitnesses to the crime, experts on subject matter (forensic chemist, arson investigator, ballistics expert, etc.) or a victim in a crime of violence. 

During the State's presentation of evidence, they will call the witnesses to the stand that can best explain "the story" to the jury.  When the State's attorney finishes questioning their witness (direct examination), you or your attorney will have an opportunity to ask them questions (cross-examination).  Their is a distinct difference between direct-examination and cross-examination.  Direct examination is conducted by the party who called the witness to the stand.  The rules require that the party conducting the direct-examination, ask questions in a non-leading, open ended format. The party opposing that witness is allowed to ask questions as well, but these questions are posed in a leading manner.  A good cross-examination leads a witness to answer questions in a certain manner that if done correctly, can destroy the prosecution's case.

In addition to witness testimony, their may be evidence in your case that requires argument for or against its admission.  For example, there may be lab test results, fingerprint evidence, ballistics reports, blood spatter evidence, autopsy results and medical records.  These are just a small sample of the types of hard evidence that are regularly fought over in a criminal case and typically, this evidence only comes in through the testimony of a witness in the case. 

After the State presents their case, the Defense has the opportunity to present witnesses.  The Defense is not required to present a case, as they do not have the burden of proof.  You have the absolute right to testify at your trial, but if you do not testify, the jury is told they may not consider this when deliberating. Unfortunately, in my experience, juries do want to hear from the client and they tend to hold it against the client when they don't.  While the law says you're cloaked in the presumption of evidence, juries look unfavorably on clients who refuse to testify as they erroneously believe that the reason is due to having something to hide.  Finally, after the defense has presented its case in chief, the state then has the chance to present additional witnesses, but only to rebut the testimony elicited from the defense's witnesses. 

After the evidence has closed, each side is given an opportunity to present closing arguments.  Each side can discuss the evidence presented at trial, but the arguments themselves are not evidence.  After closing arguments, the judge gives the jury a long list of instructions on multiple legal issues.  These instructions include the defendant's  constitutional  right to not testify and the presumption of innocence.  The judge will also go into great detail about the burden of proof and how that remains with the State.  Next, the judge will discuss the elements of your charge, and how the State needs to prove each of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt.  The judge will also give legal definitions of certain terms in order to assist the jury during their deliberations.  Finally, the judge will discuss the rules about how jury deliberations take place. Once these instructions are given, the jury is dismissed to deliberate on your case until they reach a unanimous verdict, or determine they are unable to reach a unanimous verdict. 

If you are found not guilty, your case is officially over as you've been acquitted of the charges.  If the jury cannot reach a verdict, the judge will declare a mistrial and your case will likely be set for another jury trial, unless you and the State can reach a resolution beforehand.  In the event that you are found guilty, the Court will either ask for arguments on what your sentence should be, or will schedule your case for a sentencing hearing where your attorney and the State can develop more refined arguments, which are usually submitted in writing in advance of the sentencing hearing.

Trials are often very complicated, and having an attorney on your side is instrumental to make sure your trial is fair.  If you are charged with a crime, contact the attorneys of WTB LAW immediately to schedule a consultation.

About the Author

Nathan Hitchcock

Nathaniel H. Hitchcock's practice is devoted solely to defending persons accused of committing criminal offenses. As an associate attorney at WTB LAW, Attorney Hitchcock works closely with Attorney William Bly, who is recognized statewide as a skilled and fierce advocate in the courtroom. Attorney Hitchcock regularly attends seminars and training focused on effectively defending a wide variety of criminal case types.

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