Section 5.4: The Trial

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The Sixth Amendment is a critical component of the criminal trial process, which has a tremendous impact on ensuring a fair trial. It guarantees several fundamental rights, including the right to a speedy trial, a public trial, a trial by jury, notice of accusations, the right to confront witnesses against the defense, and the right to assistance of counsel.

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These rights are essential to due process and are applicable to all the states of the country, not only the federal government, because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. This clause ensures that every citizen has the same rights and protections, ensuring that trials follow the rules and are conducted fairly.

Jury Trials versus Bench Trials

When a person is accused of a crime, they have the right to a trial where the evidence is presented, and a decision is made regarding their guilt or innocence. In most cases, this trial is conducted in front of a jury, which is a group of citizens chosen to hear the evidence and decide on a verdict.

However, the defendant has the option to waive their right to a jury trial and instead have a bench trial. In this type of trial, the judge serves as the fact-finder and decides on the verdict. The defendant may opt for a bench trial when the case’s nature is likely to elicit emotional reactions from the jury, which may impact their decision-making ability.

It is essential to note that this decision is solely made by the defendant. Additionally, if the crime has the possibility of carrying a jail sentence, then the state must provide the option of a jury trial to the defendant. However, for less severe offenses, such as traffic violations, there is no right to a jury trial, as there is no possibility of jail time.

Traffic violations are offenses that relate to road safety and can include offenses such as speeding, driving without a license, or failing to stop at a stop sign. These violations usually carry fines as punishment but not jail time.

Overall, while a bench trial may be an option in certain circumstances, a jury trial is the most common and essential type of trial in criminal cases. The right to a fair trial is an essential part of the criminal justice system, and it ensures that individuals are treated fairly and justly under the law.

The Jury

In criminal cases, juries are groups of people who are chosen to listen to the evidence and decide if someone is guilty or not guilty of a crime. While some juries can have as few as six members, twelve is the most common number in criminal cases.

To create a jury, a group of people called a “jury pool” is formed. This pool consists of individuals who live in the area where the court has jurisdiction, and they are selected, usually at random, from different sources, such as voter registration records, motor vehicle registration records, property tax rolls, and so on.

When a criminal trial is scheduled to take place, potential jurors from the jury pool must report for jury duty on a specific date and time. Once they arrive, they are assigned a number, and a group of jurors is randomly selected by number to form the first slate of potential jurors.

It is important to note that being a member of the jury pool doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be selected to serve on a jury. In fact, many potential jurors are not selected because the judge, the defense, or the prosecution may have concerns about their ability to be impartial or have conflicts that may impact their ability to serve on the jury.

Overall, the process of selecting a jury can be complex and involves various procedures to ensure a fair and unbiased jury. It is an essential part of the criminal justice system and helps to uphold the principles of justice and fairness for all individuals involved.

Jury Selection Process

The concept of impartiality is a critical aspect of the American legal system. It refers to the idea that the members of the jury should be free from any preconceived notions or biases that may affect their ability to make a fair decision. The Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees this right to impartiality for all individuals involved in the criminal justice system.

The voir dire examination is a crucial part of the jury selection process. It’s a French term that means “to speak the truth,” and it involves questioning potential jurors to determine whether they can be impartial in the case. The questions may relate to the juror’s background, occupation, or any other factors that may influence their decision-making ability. Based on their answers, the prosecution or defense may decide to eliminate potential jurors from the pool.

A challenge for cause can be made when there is evidence that a potential juror is biased in some way. If the judge agrees, the juror is removed from the pool of potential jurors. In addition, lawyers are allowed to use a certain number of peremptory challenges to disqualify potential jurors from serving on the jury without stating a reason for their decision.

However, the Supreme Court has prohibited the use of peremptory challenges to exclude individuals from jury duty based on race or gender. This is because such discrimination undermines the principle of an impartial jury and denies the defendant their constitutional right to a fair trial. Nonetheless, the rule can be difficult to enforce since peremptory challenges are based on subjective judgment, and lawyers can often offer plausible reasons for excluding a particular individual.

Elements of a Trial

When a defendant decides to proceed to trial, it’s a critical and daunting decision. This is because the defendant is facing criminal charges and must defend themselves in court against the prosecution’s allegations. If the prosecution is pursuing the case, it’s a sign that they believe they have a strong case against the defendant.

Statistics show that the majority of defendants who decide to go to trial will be found guilty (Hans & Reyna, 2011). This is because, during the trial, the prosecution presents evidence to the jury, which tries to convince them that the defendant is guilty of the crime they are accused of committing.

The prosecution will have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a high standard of proof. However, if the prosecution succeeds in meeting this standard, the defendant is likely to be found guilty.

It’s important to note that taking a case to trial is not always the best strategy for the defendant. While a trial gives the defendant a chance to fight the charges against them, it also carries significant risks. For example, if the defendant is found guilty, they may face harsher punishment than if they had accepted a plea bargain or settled the case outside of court (Bibas, 2004).

Overall, going to trial is a significant and complex decision for the defendant. It requires the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney (Koenig, 2011). While the prosecution may believe they have a strong case, it’s crucial to remember that the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Opening Statements

When a criminal trial commences, both the prosecution and defense teams make statements to the jury about what they intend to prove. As per legal custom, the prosecution goes first because it has the burden of proof. These statements, called opening statements, are not supposed to be argumentative but rather provide a roadmap of what the evidence will show.

Both the prosecution and defense are required to limit their comments to the facts and evidence that will be presented during the trial. However, lawyers will often add a dramatic flair to their opening remarks, infusing elements of argumentation to help convey their point of view.

The purpose of the opening statements is to provide a roadmap to the jury, explaining what evidence will be presented and how the evidence supports the party’s position. It also serves to set the tone for the trial and establish a connection with the jurors (Roberts, 2001). Additionally, opening statements can provide a way to engage the jurors and make them care about the case, increasing the likelihood that they will pay attention to the evidence presented (Horowitz & Bordens, 2017).

Overall, the opening statements of a criminal trial serve as an important opportunity for the prosecution and defense to lay out their respective cases and establish credibility with the jury. While lawyers may add some dramatic flair to their statements, they must remain focused on the facts and evidence that will be presented during the trial.

The Role of Evidence

In a criminal trial, both the prosecution and defense are required to support their respective factual assertions with evidence. There are various types of evidence used in court. Testimonial evidence is a statement made by anyone with knowledge of an event, while direct evidence is evidence that directly proves a fact in question. Circumstantial evidence creates an inference that a fact exists.

In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. Technically, the defense does not have to prove anything to prevail. However, most defense attorneys present evidence to counter the evidence presented by the prosecution.

Hearsay is generally not admissible in court, but there are several exceptions to this rule. Hearsay is testimony that a person testifying has no direct knowledge of the facts, making it second-hand information.

One of the most commonly referenced exceptions to the hearsay rule is the dying declaration. A dying declaration is a statement made by a person who believes they are about to die, and the logic behind this exception is that such people have no reason to lie, and their truthfulness can be assumed.

The procedural rules for the admission of evidence in a trial are complex, and the courts heavily regulate what evidence can be presented and how it can be presented. The rules of evidence have developed over hundreds of years from the common law tradition, and the federal courts in the United States follow the Federal Rules of Evidence.

Overall, evidence plays a critical role in criminal trials, and there are several types of evidence that can be presented. While hearsay is generally not admissible in court, there are several exceptions to this rule. The rules of evidence are heavily regulated, and the procedural rules for the admission of evidence at trial are complex.

The Prosecution’s Case

After the opening statements of both the prosecution and defense, the trial moves to the presentation of evidence by the prosecutor in what is known as the state’s case. During this phase, the prosecutor will call witnesses and conduct direct examinations. The defense has the opportunity to conduct cross-examinations of the witnesses in an effort to discredit their testimony.

It is essential for witnesses to appear in court and provide testimony because the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to confront and question those who give evidence against them. This right is commonly known as the confrontation clause.

The confrontation clause provides criminal defendants with the opportunity to question the accuracy and truthfulness of the evidence presented against them. It ensures that defendants have the right to a fair trial and a chance to defend themselves against the charges brought by the prosecution.

Overall, the presentation of evidence by the prosecutor is a critical phase of a criminal trial, and the confrontation clause is an essential right of criminal defendants. Through the use of direct and cross-examinations, witnesses are able to provide evidence that is essential to a fair trial. The confrontation clause guarantees that criminal defendants have the opportunity to question the evidence presented against them and defend themselves in court.

The Defense’s Case

From a legal standpoint, the defense is not required to present any evidence during a criminal trial. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor, and the defense does not have an obligation to prove innocence. The defense only needs to show that the prosecution has failed to prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high standard of proof in American law.

Since the Fifth Amendment protects defendants from self-incrimination, the defendant cannot be forced to testify at trial. It is up to the defendant and the defense team to decide whether or not the defendant will testify. If the defendant does testify, he or she will face cross-examination (Stuart, 2019).

The defense attorney’s primary responsibility is to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Defense attorneys use several strategies to accomplish this goal. One common strategy is to present an alibi, which establishes that the defendant could not have committed the crime because he or she was somewhere else at the time the crime was committed. Another strategy is to provide an alternative account of the evidence that links the defendant to the crime, casting doubt on the prosecution’s case. Additionally, the defense may challenge the credibility and competence of the prosecution’s witnesses.

In summary, while the defense is not legally required to present evidence, its main task is to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Several defense strategies can be employed, including presenting an alibi, offering alternative explanations of the evidence, and attacking the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses.

Closing Arguments

The closing arguments of a trial provide both the prosecution and defense with the opportunity to summarize the evidence presented during the trial and clarify their opposing theories about what happened (Burnham, 2012). However, the lawyers are limited to discussing the evidence that has already been presented and cannot introduce new evidence or refer to evidence that was not presented.

Prior to this phase, judges will usually inform the attorneys of their decisions regarding jury instructions. By knowing what the instructions will be, the attorneys can use the closing argument to relate the instructions to specific pieces of evidence.

In a criminal trial, the prosecution typically presents the closing argument first, followed by the defense attorney. The defense attorney will often address the statements made by the prosecution in the state’s closing arguments. In some jurisdictions, the prosecution is allowed a final speech before the jury, which is known as a rebuttal.

The closing arguments are an essential part of a trial because they allow the prosecution and defense to provide the jury with their final thoughts and opinions on the case. Through their closing arguments, the lawyers can remind the jury of the key points and evidence presented during the trial and attempt to persuade them to accept their theories of the case.

The closing arguments provide both the prosecution and defense with an opportunity to summarize the evidence presented during the trial and clarify their opposing theories of the case. The lawyers are limited to discussing the evidence already presented, and judges usually inform them of their decisions regarding jury instructions prior to this phase. Through their closing arguments, the lawyers can remind the jury of the key evidence presented during the trial and attempt to persuade them to accept their theories of the case.

Jury Instructions

Before the jury can begin their deliberations, the judge will give them instructions on how to apply the law to the case at hand. These instructions are known as jury instructions. They typically include the elements of the offense charged, how to apply facts to the law, and the definition of pertinent legal concepts, such as beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge may also include the possible verdicts that the jury can reach in the case. The primary goal of jury instructions is to provide the jurors with the relevant law that they should consider in their deliberations.

Jury instructions must meet certain legal requirements and may serve as grounds for later appeals. Therefore, judges often read the instructions to the jury verbatim to ensure that they are accurate and legally sound. This reading of the instructions is known as the judge’s charge to the jury.

The judge’s charge to the jury is a critical component of the trial because it provides the jurors with the legal framework for their decision-making process. The judge’s charge to the jury serves as a guide to the jurors as they evaluate the evidence presented in court and determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

Jury Deliberations

Once the judge has charged the jury with instructions on how to apply the law to the case, the jurors will retire to a private jury room to begin their deliberations. Their first task is to elect a foreperson who will preside over the deliberations and ultimately deliver the jury’s final verdict. During deliberations, the jury must keep their discussions secret, and a bailiff is usually assigned to ensure that no one communicates with them. If the jury is unable to reach a verdict by the end of the first day of deliberations, they may be sequestered.

Sequestration means that the jurors are moved to a secluded location where they are compelled to avoid contact with anyone or media that might result in them obtaining information about the case. In most cases, the jurors are simply allowed to go home for the night but are instructed not to read newspapers, watch news programs, or discuss the case with anyone else.

In criminal trials, most states require that the final verdict reached by the jury be unanimous. A hung jury occurs when the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict. In this case, the judge has no choice but to dismiss the case. If the case is dismissed due to a hung jury, the prosecutor may choose to retry the case in front of a new jury. However, suppose the jury finds the defendant not guilty. In that case, the government cannot try the person again for the same charges due to the protection against double jeopardy provided by the Fifth Amendment.

The Jury Decision in Capital Cases

The death penalty is a severe punishment that requires additional procedural safeguards for those who face it. Capital cases follow a bifurcated or two-part trial process. The first part of the trial is to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and the second part of the trial is to determine whether the defendant should receive the death penalty for their crimes. 

The penalty phase is only reached after a guilty verdict is reached. During this phase, jurors hear about both aggravating and mitigating circumstances related to the case. Aggravating circumstances are factors that make the crime more heinous or offensive to the public, such as the victim being a child or a law enforcement officer. On the other hand, mitigating circumstances make the defendant less culpable for their actions. If the jury cannot unanimously agree on the death penalty, most jurisdictions have laws that provide for an automatic life sentence.

Jury Nullification

The American legal system operates under the principle of the rule of law, which suggests that legal decisions should be based on objective and neutral standards rather than personal opinion or arbitrary authority. In theory, laws should be fair, impartial, and applied equally to all members of society. However, in reality, there can be discrepancies between the law and the values and beliefs held by jurors.

When jurors are dissatisfied with a particular aspect of the legal system, such as the substance of the law, the administration of the law, or the sentence imposed by the law, they may choose to nullify the law (Hans & Vidmar, 2018). Jury nullification occurs when a jury acquits a defendant despite the existence of sufficient evidence to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Nullification occurs when jurors, instead of applying the law to the facts presented to them, decide to use their own personal values and beliefs to determine a verdict.

One of the reasons for jury nullification is the perception that the law is unjust, immoral, or unconstitutional. Jurors may also believe that a defendant is being unfairly prosecuted or targeted by the legal system. Moreover, jurors may feel that the law is being used to achieve a political or social agenda rather than to serve justice.

Despite its controversial nature, jury nullification has a long history in the United States, dating back to the colonial era (Hans & Vidmar, 2018). However, its use has declined significantly in recent years, in part due to the increase in mandatory minimum sentencing and plea bargaining (Kahana, 2018). Despite this decline, jury nullification remains an important aspect of the American legal system, serving as a potential check on the power of the government and the courts.

The Posttrial Process

In most jurisdictions (defined as a specific geographical area with its own laws and legal system), once the jury has rendered a verdict, their service is complete. It is up to the judge to impose a sentence if the verdict is guilty. However, in some jurisdictions, a bifurcated trial system is used. In this system, the trial is split into two distinct parts: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, the trial proceeds to the sentencing phase, where the jury decides the appropriate sentence.

The use of a bifurcated trial system is not universal, and its implementation varies across jurisdictions. In the United States, federal courts use a bifurcated trial system in death penalty cases, where the jury determines the sentence after the guilty verdict has been rendered. However, in other jurisdictions, such as the state of California, the use of bifurcated trials has been limited due to concerns over cost and efficiency.

Post-trial Motions

After a criminal trial ends with a guilty verdict and a sentence is imposed, the defendant’s legal team can still take a few actions in an attempt to reverse or mitigate the outcome. One option is to file a motion for a new trial, which asks the court to vacate the verdict and grant a new trial. This motion can be filed on various grounds, including newly discovered evidence, juror misconduct, or errors in legal proceedings.

If the trial judge finds that the defense’s motion for a new trial has merit, they may grant the motion and order a new trial, starting from the beginning of the trial process. The new trial would include a new jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence, closing arguments, and deliberations, with the goal of reaching a different outcome than the previous trial. 

It’s worth noting that the decision to grant a new trial is up to the discretion of the trial judge and can be a rare occurrence. In most cases, the defense must present compelling evidence or arguments to convince the judge that a new trial is necessary. Additionally, filing a motion for a new trial can be a lengthy and complex process, requiring the expertise of an experienced criminal defense attorney. 

Summary

The American legal system has a critical aspect of impartiality, which means that members of the jury should not have preconceived notions or biases that may affect their ability to make a fair decision. To ensure impartiality, the voir dire examination is a crucial part of the jury selection process. It involves questioning potential jurors about their background, occupation, and other factors that may influence their decision-making ability.

During the trial phase, the prosecution presents evidence to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense can present evidence to counter the prosecution’s evidence. The confrontation clause guarantees criminal defendants the right to question the accuracy and truthfulness of the evidence presented against them. The presentation of evidence by the prosecutor is a critical phase of a criminal trial, and the confrontation clause is an essential right of criminal defendants.

The defense’s primary responsibility is to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Several defense strategies can be employed, including presenting an alibi, offering alternative explanations of the evidence, and attacking the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses. While the defense is not legally required to present evidence, it is their main task to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.

The closing arguments provide both the prosecution and defense with an opportunity to summarize the evidence presented during the trial and persuade the jury to accept their theories of the case. The lawyers can remind the jury of the key points and evidence presented during the trial and attempt to persuade them to accept their theories of the case.

After a criminal trial ends with a verdict, the judge may impose a sentence if the verdict is guilty. In some jurisdictions, a bifurcated trial system is used, where the trial is split into two parts: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, the trial proceeds to the sentencing phase, where the jury decides the appropriate sentence.

After a guilty verdict and a sentence is imposed, the defendant’s legal team can file a motion for a new trial, asking the court to vacate the verdict and grant a new trial. This motion can be filed on various grounds, including newly discovered evidence, juror misconduct, or errors in legal proceedings. The decision to grant a new trial is up to the discretion of the trial judge and can be a rare occurrence.

The judge gives jury instructions before the jury begins deliberations. They typically include the elements of the offense charged, how to apply facts to the law, and the definition of pertinent legal concepts. The judge’s charge to the jury is a critical component of the trial because it provides the jurors with the legal framework for their decision-making process. During deliberations, the jury must keep their discussions secret, and a bailiff is usually assigned to ensure that no one communicates with them.

Jury nullification occurs when a jury acquits a defendant despite sufficient evidence to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This occurs when jurors, instead of applying the law to the facts presented to them, decide to use their own personal values and beliefs to determine a verdict. Jury nullification has a long history in the United States and serves as a potential check on the power of the government and the courts.

In capital cases, the penalty phase is only reached after a guilty verdict is reached. During this phase, jurors hear about both aggravating and mitigating circumstances related to the case. If the jury cannot unanimously agree on the death penalty, most jurisdictions have laws that provide for an automatic life sentence.

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Last Updated:  07/13/2023

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