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Criminal Trial Process Overview

Understand Your Criminal Defense Case

If you have been arrested for a crime, no doubt you may be curious about what you will be facing. Despite the complexity of our country's legal system, most criminal trials are conducted similarly. Our Orange County criminal defense attorney explains how the trial is held and what each step of the process entails. Understanding the criminal trial system not only prepares you for what is to come, but can also help you get a better grasp of your own case and the defense strategies that will be used to help protect your rights.

The steps of a criminal trial are:

  • Selecting a jury
  • Opening statements
  • Witness testimonies and cross-examination
  • Closing arguments
  • Jury instruction
  • Deliberation and verdict

Selecting a Jury

Except in rare cases, the first step of the trial process is selecting jury members. The selection is conducted with the judge, the plaintiff's attorney, and the defendant's attorney. They ask the potential jurors a serious of questions pertaining to the case, including questions about ideological opinions and life experiences.

A potential juror may not be selected for a couple of reasons:

  • The judge excused the potential juror due to their answers
  • The defense or prosecution may exclude an individual through use of "peremptory challenges" and challenges "for cause"

If a potential jury member gives answers that seem biased or to favor a certain side unfairly, the prosecution or defense may request that that individual not be used in the trial. There are only a certain number of jurors that may be excluded. Once both parties are content with the unbiased jurors that have been selected, the trial may begin.

Opening Statements

The trial begins with the prosecutor and the defense presenting beginning arguments. Witnesses and evidence are usually not presented during this time.

The prosecutor, on behalf of the government, must prove that the defendant is guilty. For this reason, often the prosecution's opening statement is given first. The purpose of the opening statement for the prosecution is to state the facts of the case and prove how and why the defendant committed the crime.

The defense uses the opening statement to refute the prosecution's facts and instill doubt that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination

One major piece of evidence in a criminal trial is the witness testimony. Both the prosecution and the defense can call upon witnesses to support their case.

The witness testimony process is conducted as followed:

  • The witness is sworn in after being called to the stand.
  • The party that called the witness to the stand questions him or her. The direct examination is used to extract information that supports the party's position.
  • After the examination, the opposing party has a chance to cross-examine the witness. They attempt to weaken the testimony by pointing out holes and discredit the witness or account.
  • When the cross-examination is completed, the original party has a chance to re-direct examination. They can ask questions that will repair the damage done to their case by the cross-examination.

Each side is given the opportunity to present and challenge evidence. When neither side has any more evidence to present or refute, both sides "rest" and the trial moves into closing arguments.

Closing Arguments

Very similar to opening statements, the prosecution and the defense are able to provide statements that summarize the case and the evidence they provided. It is the final chance for both parties to present statements to convince the jury in their favor.

Deliberation and Verdict

During the final stage, the judge provides the jury with instruction and they deliberate. The jury attempts to agree on whether or not the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Depending on the case, the deliberation process can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks.

In California, if the jury is unable to unanimously agree on a guilty or not guilty verdict (this is also known as a "hung jury") a retrial will occur with a different jury.

For more information about the criminal process, contact The Law Offices of Jacqueline Goodman.

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