Every case is evaluated from trial backwards. Forecasting what will happen within the trial, and what the end verdict will likely be, is a critical part of representation. You should never accept a plea deal in a case that is false, or where you have a sound defense. However, if you are certain to lose based on the evidence, it is very helpful to know this early on in the process, before negotiations with the prosecutor have become contentious.
Dressing for Trial
If your case goes to trial, you should always appear neatly groomed and wearing professional attire. In addition to listening to the evidence, the jury will also be forming impressions of you, and everyone involved in the trial. It is important that both your appearance and demeanor show as much respect as possible for the situation. The court will allow an incarcerated client to dress in normal clothing for the trial proceedings.
Those charged with a criminal offense have a Constitutional right to a trial by jury. Defendants also have the right to elect a “bench trial,” which is a trial in which the judge decides the verdict. However, defendants should always elect to have a jury trial. The following are the basic procedural stages of the jury trial:
Jury Selection, also called “Voir Dire,” is the first event of the trial. Citizens of the county in which the trial is held are summoned to court to serve as jurors. At first, many more jurors than will be needed are brought into the courtroom. Both the prosecutor and the criminal defense attorney will choose to remove or “strike” jurors from the jury pool, until the final 12 jurors (6 in misdemeanor cases) have been selected. Once the final jury has been selected, the extra members of the jury pool will be dismissed.
Jury Selection is a critically important part of the trial. Both sides will evaluate the jurors in several different ways. The prosecutor and the defense attorney will ask questions of the panel members to determine if they have a strong bias for either guilt or innocence. For example, a juror who does not like police officers, or has had a bad experience with law enforcement will likely be removed by the prosecutor because that juror is less likely to trust the police officer’s testimony against the defendant. On the other hand, a juror whose husband is a police officer might be removed by the defense because they are more likely to trust the officer’s testimony in the case.
In addition to determining what sort of bias the juror has regarding the issues or witnesses in the case, the attorneys will also be trying to get a feel for which jurors they can bond with. If a particular juror seems not to like the prosecutor, the prosecutor will pick up on this and remove the juror. A juror is much more likely to trust in the arguments of an attorney if they like the attorney. Once a jury has been chosen, the trial then moves on to Opening Statements.
The attorneys are not supposed to “argue” the case during opening statements. They are instead limited to telling the jury the facts that will come out during the rest of the trial. However, a skilled trial lawyer will be clever in how he describes the facts, and will go to work trying to convince the jury, without making objectionable “argument” to the jury. The sooner the jury starts leaning your way, the better. For this reason, Opening Statements are a crucial part of the trial.
Evidence is “admitted” into the trial, or made available to the jury, through witness testimony. Sometimes the evidence is the witness’s testimony itself – such as when a witness saw the alleged crime. Other times, the witness is there to “lay the foundation” for the admission of physical evidence – such as when a witness did not see or hear anything about a crime, but discovered an important piece of evidence, and they must validate the evidence by testifying about when, where, and how they discovered the item. The side that called the witness to testify performs “direct” examination of the witness, and then the opposing side is allowed “cross” examination of the witness. The attorney doing cross-examination is allowed slightly more power when questioning the witness, as he or she may ask “leading” questions – questions that tend to suggest what the answer is. This is because a witness that favors the opposing side of the case is less likely to cooperate with the attorney, and therefore the attorney must be allowed to corner the witness with suggested answers.
During Closing Arguments, the attorneys are finally allowed to argue their side of the case to the jury with very few restrictions. This means that they can not only tell the jury about the facts, like in Opening Statements, but they can also persuade the jury as to what the facts mean. For example, in Opening Statements, the defense lawyer might point out to the jury that the alleged victim didn’t call the police when the alleged assault took place. In Closing Arguments, the attorney is allowed to take the next step – and make the argument that she didn’t call the police because there was no assault, and it wasn’t until she later decided to make a false accusation that she called the police.
Once Closing Arguments have been completed, the judge will read “jury instructions” to the jury. The jury instructions include the legal definition of the crime, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof, the fact that the burden of proof is on the prosecutor exclusively, that the jury should not hold it against the defendant if he did not testify, and so on.
After the jury has received their instructions, they are dismissed to the jury room to deliberate on their verdict. If they are able to reach a unanimous verdict, they will be brought back into the courtroom to disclose the verdict in open court. The side that loses the trial is allowed to “poll” the jury, that is, they may ask each juror individually if in fact they voted for the announced verdict.