Steps in a Criminal Trial
Criminal trial steps for a person accused of a crime. A person cannot be convicted if they are absent forcing the trial to be postponed.
A criminal trial typically proceeds in this order:
- Jury – The jury pool is seated and each side begins picking members of the jury.
- Jury / Judge – The jury is sworn in by the judge.
- Prosecution – The prosecution gives its opening statement, explaining the defendant’s alleged crimes to the jury and the basis for charging him. The prosecution will describe the evidence it will offer and discuss the determination of guilt or innocence that the jury must make.
- Defense – If the defendant chooses, the defendant’s attorney makes the defendants opening statement.
- Witnesses – The court orders the prosecution to proceed with its case by calling witnesses. Witnesses will be sworn in and questioned by the prosecutor and cross-examined by the defense. The defense is under no obligation to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Some witnesses will identify certain documents and records, such as crime scene photographs, which is introduced into evidence and shown to the jury.
- Prosecution – The prosecution concludes it case by “closing.” Once the case is closed, the prosecution is prohibited from “opening” it again by offering additional proof, evidence or testimony, other than rebuttal evidence that contradicts the defense’s case.
- Defense – The court asks the defense to proceed with its case. The defendant is not required to prove their innocence, it is not uncommon for defense counsel to choose not to call witnesses, nor offer evidence. The case for reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt is most often made through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. The defense rests and can make a closing argument at that time.
- Prosecutor – The prosecutor makes their closing argument.
- Judge – The judge instructs or “charges” the jury, explaining its duties in determining guilt or innocence.
- Jury – The jury returns a verdict, which is read by the judge or court clerk. In some instances the jury cannot make a decision, in which case, a mistrial should occur and the case will be tried again.
- Defendant – If the defendant is acquitted, the defendant will be released and free to go at the moment of acquittal. If the defendant is convicted, the defendant will remain in custody and then sentenced by the judge or jury. Sentencing may be immediate for the defendant or it may be part of a separate legal procedure, it’s all dependent on the state.
The U.S. Constitution requires that an impartial jury try criminal defendants within a reasonable time after they are arrested. Most states have set a minimum time in which a defendant must be tried. The time limit is often not enforceable due to the circumstances of the case, such as its complexity, the availability of witnesses and other proof.
In federal court, the case against a defendant must be tried within 70 days after an indictment or an appearance before the judge, whichever is later.
Do I have to ask for a speedy trial? Yes. most states require you to ask for a speedy trial in order to trigger the timeline. A written demand should always be made, even if it is not required, so the prosecutor has unequivocal notice of your request.
I want a speedy trial, but my attorney still needs time to prepare.
Can a trial start right away? No. In federal court, a trial cannot begin sooner than 30 days after your first appearance before a judge. You have at least 30 days to prepare for trial and, unless you agree in writing otherwise, the case will not be tried before that time. Most states follow the federal rule to some extent.
Are speedy trial time limits applicable in extradition cases? No, in extradition cases, the time for trial is extended while extradition matters are decided.
Extradition is the handing over by a government of the defendant who is accused of a crime in a different country or state for trial or punishment by another jurisdiction. Extradition cases have their own legal timeline that precede deadlines for a speedy trial.
My trial has been delayed time and again.
What do I do to show my right to a speedy trial has been violated and get the charges against me dismissed? The attorney must file a motion to dismiss the charges based on violations of your constitutional right to a speedy trial.
The charges will be dismissed if you can show: that you, in fact, asked for a speedy trial; invalid reasons for the delay; a length of delay that is unreasonable; and prejudice you suffered as a result of the delay.
If the delay has been many years, the charges may be dismissed without any showing on your part. If I have asked for a speedy trial, why can the prosecutor delay it? The prosecution has the right, just as a defendant does, to request a continuance or delay in the trial date.
Good Cause – The prosecutor must show good cause for the delay, such as unavailable witnesses, illness or new evidence.
Continuance – The first request for a continuance is typically granted and furthermore, the granting of a continuance by the judge does not violate your constitutional right to a speedy trial.
Waved Speedy Trial – A defendant may waive her right to a speedy trial in order to gain time to prepare a defense. Once waved, defendant cannot complain that the prosecution was slow in bringing the case to trial. Additionally, defendants often delay their own cases by changing attorneys. Thereby frustrating the prosecutor’s attempt to gain a quick conviction. A defendant who demanded a speedy trial must be tried before the date required in the trial timeline. If a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated. The court may dismiss the charges against the defendant.
All criminal trials turn on the issue of “reasonable doubt.” When reasonable doubt exists, a jury cannot convict the defendant. Prior to a jury’s attempt to reach a verdict. The court instructs the jury that the defendant is presumed innocent, this presumption remains intact unless, guilt is found beyond a “reasonable doubt”. There is no official definition of “reasonable doubt” that is used in criminal cases. Many courts do not define “reasonable doubt” for the jury.
Reasonable doubt has been described as “the real possibility” that the defendant is not guilty. Indecision has to be so great that the jury does not have a certainty of guilt. It is not necessary that all doubt be extinguished, or that a scientific certainty of the defendant’s guilt exists in order for a jury to convict.
The prosecution has the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in all criminal cases. At no time during trial does the burden of proof shift to the defendant to prove innocence. The defendant is not required to prove their innocence, nor, is the defendant to present any facts that might raise “reasonable doubt” in the minds of the jury.