How do criminal trials proceed?
March 28, 2009 2:17 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to know the exact steps that happen in a criminal trial.

I was called for jury duty in California a while ago. It was about a man accused of selling cocaine. I was rejected as a juror during the selection process. I'm curious as to what would have happened next. I rarely pay strict attention to TV and movies during court scenes, focusing on the acting, and it's TV and movies, so I can't imagine it's that close to reality.

More specifically, what happens after the closing arguments? (Please also include what usually goes on before that though).

Jason Land
posted by Jason Land to Law & Government (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's actually not too far from the movies in terms of procedure. It's more the drama and the legal rulings that are way off base. Here's what happens:

1. Jury gets sworn in.

2. Jury is given instructions (things like, don't talk to others about the case, don't make a decision before you've heard all the evidence, etc.)

3. Opening statements. These are supposed to be mostly non-argumentative, and just give you a roadmap of what the case is about, and what they intend to show. (E.g., we will show that the defendant went into the room, argued over drugs, and then shot the man in cold blood. Or, we will show that the other man was carrying a gun, that the defendant only shot him to protect himself. Etc.)

4. Prosecution calls its witnesses and asks them questions. Then the defense gets to cross-examine. Then prosecution gets re-direct, to give them a chance to clean up whatever holes the defense picked in the story or credibility of the witness. That's usually it, though the judge can allow the back and forth to keep going as long as he wants.

5. After prosecution calls all its witnesses, it rests. Defense then calls its witnesses. Same as 4, but with positions reversed.

6. (This can be flipped with 7. The order isn't necessarily consistent.) Jury is instructed on the law. (In addition to everything in step 2, they're also told things like, "to prove murder, the prosecution must show that the defendant intentionally x, y, and z beyond a reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt means...") Depending on the case, this can take a while.

7. Closing arguments. (This can be flipped with 6.) Just like on TV.

8. Jury deliberations. Jury is sent into a room to decide a verdict. They first choose a foreperson, whose job it is to send questions back to the judge if they have any, ask to have any testimony re-read by the court reporter, moderate deliberations, etc. Then they argue, and try to convince each other their position is right. Then they (hopefully) come to an agreement. At that point, they fill out a verdict form, which is provided by the judge. It has things like "Did the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree?" etc.

9. Jury notifies the judge they have a verdict. Court is convened, and jury reads the verdict. Judge may ask if the parties want to poll the jury. If one says yes, each juror is asked if the verdict is theirs. Then the judge thanks the jurors for their service.

10. Optionally, the lawyers would usually want to talk to the jurors, and they may stick around to tell the lawyers what they thought, how they screwed up, etc.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 3:57 AM on March 28, 2009

When I was on a jury, it was exactly as kingjoeshmoe described, except, in #8, we didn't get to choose a foreperson (I think the judge assigned him), and in #10, we didn't talk to the lawyers, but we did get to talk to the judge and the court stenographer to ask them any questions we had.

Oh, and we also went on a "field trip" either before or after the opening statements, where we went to the house where the murder had taken place and were told things like, "Pay attention to where the stairs are compared to where the front window is".
posted by cider at 8:06 AM on March 28, 2009

A few small nuances:

Sometimes the defense will give a delayed opening and not give an opening statement until their case-in-chief at number 4.

In GA, the jury will usually get the law after the closing, but that's something that differs widely.

If the trial is bifurcated, then you'll go through all this to determine guilt, then there will be a separate penalty phase where the prosecution and defense will call witnesses to determine what sentence the person should get, or the plaintiff and defense will call witnesses to determine how much money the plaintiff should get.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 8:29 AM on March 28, 2009

5. After prosecution calls all its witnesses, it rests. Defense then calls its witnesses. Same as 4, but with positions reversed.

One important thing kingjoeschmoe left out that is rarely shown in fictionalized trials: at the close of the state's proof, the defense will make a motion for judgment of acquittal. If the judge concludes that no reasonable jury could find the defendant guilty based on the proof that the state put on, the judge can enter a judgment of acquittal at that point.

If the motion for judgment of acquittal is denied at the close of the state's proof, the defense will renew the motion at the close of defense proof. Once again, the judge has the option to acquit the defendant without the jury deciding the question of innocence or guilt.

If the defense failed to make a motion for judgment of acquittal at the close of the state's proof, but makes it at the close of defense proof, then the defense has waived the right to challenge, on appeal, the sufficiency of the evidence based solely on the state's proof, and any challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence will be based on the proof as a whole. If the defense fails to make a motion for judgment of acquittal at any point during the trial, then the defense has waived sufficiency of the evidence as an appeal issue at all.
posted by jayder at 10:07 AM on March 28, 2009

Oh, and the motion for judgment of acquittal is generally made, and the judge rules on it, outside of the presence of the jury, for the obvious reason that if it is denied, it prejudices the defendant for the jury to know that the judge denied the motion.
posted by jayder at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2009

Another thing left out by kingjoeschmoe:

After the swearing of the jury but prior to opening statements, the indictment (or information in jurisdictions where defendants are charged by information) is read to the jury by the prosecuting attorney, and then the judge recognizes the defense counsel, who stands up and says, "[Defendant's name] enters a plea of not guilty."

Then opening statements.
posted by jayder at 10:14 AM on March 28, 2009

Between 7 and 8 the judge instructs the jury that it is the finder of fact and that its duty is to apply the law, as the judge gives it to the jury, to the facts as found. Instruction on the law generally includes instructions on the presumption of innocence, definitions of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and elements of the crime(s) charged, that no inference is to be drawn from failure of the defendant not to testify (as applicable), what is and is not evidence, how to treat expert evidence (if any), and so on.
posted by inkyr2 at 11:44 AM on March 28, 2009

I was on a CA jury last month, and it went exactly as kingjoeshmoe describes.

Also, it went on for over a week, because all the justice was being parceled out in randomly-scheduled increments from two to four hours long every working day. The only day I sat for the entire workday was the day on which I was selected for service.

They told us the lawyers might want to speak to us, but no one hung around for it-- that part's optional in CA, you don't have to stay and let them ask you how you arrived at the decision.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:50 PM on March 28, 2009

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