The criminal trial process in the United States is a complex and multifaceted system that involves numerous steps and procedures. From the initial investigation to the final verdict, each stage of the process is critical to ensuring justice. Along the way, individuals accused of a crime may hire a criminal defense lawyer to represent them in court. These lawyers are essential to protecting the rights of the accused and ensuring a fair trial.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, criminal defense lawyers are in high demand in the United States, with approximately 16,000 new lawyers entering the field each year. In addition, criminal trials are becoming increasingly common, with over 1.1 million felony cases filed in the state courts in 2021. As a result, understanding the criminal trial process and the role of criminal defense lawyers is more important than ever.
This article will detail each step in the criminal trial process, from the initial investigation to the final verdict. We will also examine the critical role that criminal defense lawyers play in the process, providing insight into their responsibilities and the strategies they may use to defend their clients. By the end of this article, readers will better understand the criminal trial process in the United States and the importance of having a skilled criminal defense lawyer on your side.
The investigation phase of a criminal trial typically refers to the pre-trial period when law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and defense attorneys gather and analyze evidence related to the alleged crime.
During this phase, defendants can expect their attorneys to thoroughly investigate the charges against them. This may include reviewing police reports, witness statements, and physical evidence such as forensic test results. Defense attorneys may also conduct independent investigations to gather evidence that supports the defendant's case.
Defendants can also expect to attend court hearings during this phase. These hearings may include arraignments, preliminary hearings, and bail hearings. At these hearings, defendants will be advised of their rights and the charges against them, and they will have the opportunity to enter a guilty or not guilty plea. Additionally, the court may set bail or other conditions of release.
During the charges phase, defendants can expect their attorneys to review the charges against them and advise them on their legal options. Defense attorneys may also negotiate with prosecutors to seek a plea bargain, in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a reduced sentence.
The arraignment is a formal hearing in a criminal trial where a defendant is brought before a court and formally charged with a crime. This hearing typically occurs after the investigation phase and the filing of charges.
During the arraignment, defendants can expect their attorneys to review the charges against them and explain their legal options. Defendants will also be advised of their rights during the arraignment, including the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and the right to a trial by jury. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to them.
At the arraignment, defendants will have the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the court may move to sentencing, or the case may be set for a future sentencing hearing. The court will select a trial date if the defendant pleads not guilty.
A plea agreement is a negotiated settlement between the prosecution and the defense in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a charge or charges in exchange for a reduced sentence or other concessions. The plea agreement is typically entered into after the charges have been filed and before the trial begins.
During the plea agreement phase, defendants can expect their attorneys to negotiate with the prosecution and advise them on the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Defense attorneys seek to protect their client's rights and interests, while the prosecution aims to secure a conviction.
Once the plea agreement is reached, the defendant will typically be required to appear before a judge to enter their plea formally. The judge will ensure that the defendant understands the terms of the agreement and that their plea is entered voluntarily and knowingly.
If the plea agreement is accepted, the case typically proceeds to a sentencing hearing, where the judge will impose the agreed-upon sentence. If the plea agreement is rejected, the case will proceed to trial.
During the pre-trial discovery phase, the prosecution and the defense gather evidence and information in preparation for the trial. The goal of this phase is to ensure that both sides have access to all the information they need to make informed decisions about how to proceed with the case.
Defendants should expect their attorneys to work diligently during this phase to gather evidence and information that can be used to build a strong defense. This may involve reviewing police reports, witness statements, physical evidence, and other materials related to the case.
Defendants should also expect the prosecution to be engaged in the same process, gathering evidence and information that they will use to build their case against the defendant.
During the pre-trial discovery phase, both sides may also engage in depositions, which involve taking sworn statements from witnesses who may be called to testify at trial. This allows the prosecution and defense to obtain information about the witnesses' testimony and challenge any inconsistencies or contradictions.
The pre-trial motions phase of a criminal trial involves formal requests made by the prosecution or the defense to the court to resolve issues related to the case before the trial begins. These motions can cover many topics, from requests to suppress evidence to challenges to the legal sufficiency of the charges.
During this phase, defendants can expect their attorneys to file motions to protect their rights and interests. For example, defense attorneys may file motions to suppress evidence, which seeks to exclude evidence obtained by law enforcement officers in violation of the defendant's constitutional rights. They may also file motions to dismiss the case, arguing that the charges are legally insufficient or that the prosecution has failed to follow proper procedures.
Defendants should be aware that the prosecution may also file pre-trial motions, such as motions to limit the evidence that the defense can present at trial or to request a change of venue to ensure a fair trial.
The court will consider the arguments presented by both sides and issue a ruling on each motion. The trial outcome may have significant implications if the court grants a motion. For example, if the court grants a motion to suppress evidence, that evidence cannot be used against the defendant at trial.
Jury selection is the process by which a jury is chosen to hear a criminal trial. During this phase, potential jurors are questioned by the prosecution and defense attorneys to determine if they are suitable to serve on the jury.
Defendants should expect their attorneys to participate in the jury selection process and identify potential jurors who are likely sympathetic to their case. Defense attorneys may ask potential jurors about their views on the specific crime the defendant is accused of and their opinions on the criminal justice system more broadly.
The court will have rules and procedures to ensure the jury selection process is fair and impartial. For example, the judge may ask the jurors questions and exclude jurors who have a conflict of interest or cannot be neutral.
During jury selection, the prosecution and defense attorneys can strike potential jurors from the jury panel. The prosecution and defense are each typically allowed a certain number of strikes, which they can use to exclude jurors they believe would be unfavorable to their case.
The opening statements in a criminal trial are the first statements made by the prosecution and defense attorneys to the jury after the jury has been selected. The opening remarks allow the attorneys to present an overview of their vase and outline the evidence and arguments they will present during the trial.
During the opening statement, the prosecution will present the case theory, the charges against the defendant, and the evidence they plan to present to prove their case. They may also outline the testimony of critical witnesses and describe any physical evidence that will be presented at trial.
The defense attorney will then have an opportunity to present their opening statement. They will typically describe their theory of the case and outline the evidence they will contribute to challenge the prosecution's case. They may also highlight weaknesses in the prosecution's case and evidence supporting the defendant's innocence.
Presentation of Cases
The witness examination phase of a criminal trial is when the prosecution and defense attorneys call witnesses to testify. During this phase, the attorneys will ask questions of the witnesses to present evidence and establish the facts of the case.
The examination of a witness typically begins with a direct examination by the attorney who called the witness to testify. The attorney will ask the witness questions to elicit testimony supporting their case. The questions may cover a wide range of topics, from the witness's background to their knowledge of the events.
After the direct examination, the opposing attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness. The cross-examination allows the opposing attorney to question the witness's testimony and attempt to undermine their credibility. The questions may be leading or challenging, and the attorney may try to create doubt in the jurors' minds about the witness's testimony.
After the cross-examination, the attorney who called the witness may have an opportunity for a re-direct examination. This allows the attorney to clarify any issues raised during the cross-examination or address any new problems.
Objections are formal challenges to evidence or testimony presented in court. Attorneys use them to protect their client's rights and ensure that the evidence presented to the jury is admissible and relevant.
When an attorney believes a question or piece of evidence is improper, they may object to it. The objection is usually made by standing and saying "objection, your honor," or "I object." The attorney will then state the grounds for the objection.
The most common types of objections in a criminal trial are:
Hearsay: A witness is testifying about something that was said by someone who is not in court. Hearsay is generally not admissible in court, although there are some exceptions.
Relevance: The attorney believes the presented evidence is irrelevant to the case.
Leading: The attorney asks a question that suggests an answer. Leading questions are generally not allowed during direct examination but are permitted during cross-examination.
When an objection is made, the judge will rule on it. The evidence or testimony will be excluded from the trial if the judge sustains the objection. However, the evidence or testimony can be presented if the judge overrules the objection.
The closing arguments phase of a criminal trial is when the prosecution and defense attorneys can make final arguments to the jury. The closing arguments summarize the evidence presented during the trial and make a final appeal to the jurors to find in favor of their respective sides.
The prosecution will typically give the first closing argument and focus on proving the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense attorney will then present their closing argument, focusing on creating reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds about the prosecution's case.
After the defense attorney's closing argument, the prosecution attorney may have the opportunity to give a rebuttal closing argument, addressing any new issues raised by the defense and attempting to refute any assertions made by the defense.
The jury instructions step of a criminal trial is when the judge instructs the jury on the law that applies to the case. After the closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury on the legal standards and principles they should use in their deliberations.
The judge's instructions will typically cover the elements of the crimes that the defendant has been charged with, the burden of proof required for a conviction, the standard of evidence that the jurors should evaluate witness testimony and other evidence, and how they should weigh any conflicts or inconsistencies in the evidence. The jury instructions may also cover procedural issues, such as how the jurors should deliberate, what constitutes a verdict, and what to do if they have questions or need additional guidance during the deliberation process.
During deliberations, the jurors are sequestered in a room and are instructed to discuss the evidence presented at trial and to reach a unanimous decision. They are not allowed to discuss the case with anyone outside the jury, including the judge, the lawyers, or their family and friends.
The first step in deliberations is to select a foreperson to preside over the discussion and guide the group through the decision-making process. The jurors then review the evidence, including witness testimony, physical evidence, and any exhibits presented during the trial. They may also request to review certain portions of the trial transcript or other evidence.
During the deliberations, the jurors are encouraged to engage in open and honest discussion and to consider each other’s perspectives. They may raise questions, ask for clarification, or express their opinions on the evidence and testimony presented. The goal is to reach a unanimous verdict.
The jury's verdict will be read out loud in open court, and the defendant will be informed of the decision. If the ruling is "not guilty," the defendant is acquitted and is free to leave the courtroom. If the verdict is "guilty," the defendant is convicted of the charges and will be sentenced later.
In some cases, the verdict may be a "hung jury," meaning that the jurors could not reach a unanimous decision. In this case, the judge may declare a mistrial, and the case may be retried with a new jury.
The verdict must be based solely on the evidence presented during the trial and the applicable law. The jurors must set aside personal biases or prejudices and base their decision solely on the evidence presented.
The post-trial motions step of a criminal trial occurs after the verdict has been delivered. It involves a series of legal actions that either the prosecution or the defense can take to challenge the verdict or sentence.
Defendants can expect their attorneys to file motions with the court during this time, which may include:
Motion for Judgment of Acquittal: This motion requests that the court overturn the guilty verdict because the prosecution did not present enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Motion for a New Trial: This motion requests that the court grant a new trial because errors made during the trial prevented the defendant from receiving a fair trial.
Motion to Set Aside the Verdict: This motion requests that the court set aside the verdict because jury misconduct or other errors made during the trial led to an unfair ruling.
Defendants can also expect the court to review the evidence presented during the trial and any motions filed by the evidence or arguments presented by the defense or prosecution.
Sentencing occurs after the defendant is found guilty or has pleaded guilty to the charges. At this stage, the judge will impose a sentence on the defendant, which may include incarceration, probation, fines, or a combination of these penalties.
During the sentencing hearing, the prosecution and defense can present evidence and arguments supporting their positions. For example, the prosecution may present evidence of the defendant's criminal history or the impact of the crime on the victim or community. The defense may present evidence of the defendant's background, character, or circumstances that may mitigate the sentence.
Once the judge has determined the sentence, it will be announced in open court. The defendant will have the opportunity to address the court before the sentence is imposed and may express remorse or offer mitigating factors in hopes of receiving a lesser sentence.
The appeals process in a criminal trial allows the defendant to challenge the trial court's verdict or sentence. Higher courts, such as state appellate or federal appeals courts, hear appeals.
To initiate an appeal, the defendant must file a notice of appeal with the trial court within a specified time frame after the verdict or sentence is announced. The defendant's attorney will file a brief with the appellate court, outlining the legal arguments and evidence supporting the appeal.
During the appeals process, the appellate court will review the record of the trial court proceedings, including transcripts of the trial, the evidence presented, and any legal ruling made by the trial court. In addition, the appellate court will consider the arguments presented in the briefs and may hear oral arguments from the defense and the prosecution.
The appellate court may uphold the trial court's decision, reverse the decision, or remand the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. In some cases, the appellate court may order a new trial if it finds errors that affect the outcome.
Legal Resources for Defendants
Many legal resources are available to help individuals navigate the legal system and ensure their rights are protected. This list includes some of the most helpful legal resources for individuals seeking legal help, including legal aid societies, the American Bar Association, and court self-help centers. These resources can provide individuals with valuable information, support, and representation to help them achieve the best possible outcome in their case.
Legal Aid Societies
If you have been convicted of a crime and cannot afford an attorney, you should contact your local legal aid society to inquire about the services they can provide. These organizations may assist those accused of a crime in several ways, such as providing legal representation, legal advice, and counseling services. In addition, some legal aid societies may be able to assist individuals with resolving their criminal cases through alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation or arbitration.
To find your local legal aid society, browse this directory from Legal Services Corporation or conduct an online search for “legal aid society” followed by your city or state.
American Bar Association
The American Bar Association (ABA) is a professional organization for attorneys that provides resources and support to its members and promotes access to justice and the rule of law. Although it does not represent individuals accused of a crime, it can assist in many ways. These include providing a lawyer referral service, public education materials on criminal law, policy advocacy for criminal justice reform, and continuing legal education for criminal defense attorneys.
Court Self-Help Centers
Court Self-Help Centers are typically located within the courthouse and offer free or low-cost assistance to individuals representing themselves in court. These centers can be a valuable resource for individuals who cannot afford an attorney or choose to represent themselves. They can also provide legal forms and instructions for individuals unfamiliar with the legal system who need guidance on properly filing their cases. In addition, some centers can refer individuals to other legal resources, like legal aid clinics, bar associations, and pro bono attorneys.
The services provided by Court Self-Help Centers vary by location, so it's a good idea to check with your local courthouse to see what services are available. To find your local Court Self-Help Center, search online for "court self-help center" followed by the city or county where the crime occurred.
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