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What Does A Criminal Trial Look Like?

by | May 10, 2023 | Criminal Defense

The vast majority of criminal cases are usually resolved in one of two ways. Most criminal cases resolve through some sort of negotiated plea bargain which results in a guilty plea to one or more offenses. Other cases, though, end with a trial. At trial, your defense attorney argues why reasonable doubt applies to the facts of the case which means the verdict should be not guilty, and the prosecutor who represents the government, argues for a conviction.

What kinds of trials are there?

A defendant wishing to have a trial has two options – a bench trial or a jury trial. It is the defendant’s choice and the prosecution cannot force one or the other. In bench trials, a judge decides the verdict and in jury trials a jury decides the verdict. The Constitution, rules of evidence, criminal rules, and the law apply equally in both types of trial. So, the right to subpoena witnesses, confront or question witnesses, the right to remain silent, and the right to have to have the state prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt applies equally regardless of the type of trial.

In an Ohio jury trial, a set number of people (8 for misdemeanors and 12 for felonies) are selected to hear the facts and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Jury verdicts in Ohio must be unanimous. This means that you cannot be convicted or found not guilty unless all jury members agree. If the jury cannot come to a unanimous decision, then they are considered “hung” and the case is declared a mistrial as a result of the hung jury. This means that even if the jurors are split 7-1 in favor of guilt or if they are split 7-1 in favor of acquittal then the case is not final, and a mistrial will be declared. After a mistrial, the state can elect to retry the defendant.

The other type of trial is a trial to the judge, also known as a bench trial. In this trial the Judge is the sole determiner of guilt or innocence. No jury is selected and only one person, the judge, decides whether the defendant is guilty or innocent.

How does a trial work?

Regardless of whether it is a bench or jury trial, all trials operate at their core in a similar manner. In either instance there are four main components: (1) opening arguments; (2) the state’s case-in-chief; (3) the defense’s case-in-chief; and (4) closing arguments.

Opening statements are designed to provide a preview of coming attractions – what the evidence will show at trial. During opening, the attorneys will lay out to the factfinder what they expect the evidence will show during the trial. The prosecutor has the burden of proof and gets to present their statement first. After that, defense counsel gets to give an opening argument.

After opening statements, the government / prosecution presents its case. It will call witnesses and introduce evidence it believes shows the defendant’s guilt. After the state questions a witness, the defense attorney has the opportunity to question, through cross-examine, that same witness. The state then gets a chance to re-question the same witness. This re-questioning is known as re-direct. Often, although not always, the defense then gets to re-cross examine that witness. That continues with more witnesses until the state has finished its case and then rests.

Following the state resting, the defense may but is not required to then call witnesses in its case-in-chief. Any witness called by the defense goes through the same round of questioning described above – direct from the defense, cross examination by the prosecutor, re-direct by the defense, and then re-cross if allowed.

After the defense rests, the state can call rebuttal witnesses. Rebuttal is rare and designed so that the government can have a final opportunity to refute witnesses the defense called with more of their own witnesses.

Finally, after an opportunity for the prosecution’s rebuttal, closing occurs. At closing, the state gets the first opportunity to argue its case to the fact finder (the judge or jury). The defense then has the right to argue. The state then gets the final argument. While this seems unfair to the defense, this manner of argument is permitted since the state has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Following closing arguments, the judge or jury deliberates until a verdict is rendered.

As discussed, the procedure described above occurs regardless of the type of trial. The major difference in procedure between a bench and jury trial, is voir dire which only takes place in jury trial. Voir dire is the process of picking a jury. During voir dire, the attorneys ask potential jurors questions and the judge determines if any should be excused. Voir dire happens before opening statements.

What type of trial is best for me?

This is a question best answered by your defense attorney. There is no hard and fast rule as to when to have what kind of trials, except that on non-jailable offenses like traffic tickets you are not permitted to have a trial by jury. The facts, law, and judge hearing your case can all influence what type of trial is best for you. This is why it is critical to have the best criminal defense attorney on your side to help weigh the pros and cons of either approach.