opening statement | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

An opening statement in the criminal justice context is a statement made by an attorney at the beginning of a criminal trial, outlining the facts and legal arguments that they intend to present during the trial.

An opening statement is a critical part of any criminal trial. To begin with, it is the first speech given by a lawyer to the jury at the onset of a trial. This speech paints a picture of the facts, legal arguments, and evidence that they plan to bring forward during the trial.

The Role of Opening Statements

Above all, they serve to set the stage for the trial. They provide an outline of the case, presenting a clear picture of what each side believes happened. If we think of a trial as a story, the opening statement is like the book’s introduction. Both the prosecution and the defense make opening statements, each laying out their version of events.

After all, the goal of these statements is not to prove anything but to give the jury an idea of what to expect. They’re a lawyer’s opportunity to tell their side of the story, engage the jury, and frame the facts in a way that supports their argument.

Components of an Effective Opening Statement

An effective opening is composed of several essential elements. First, it should provide an overview of the facts of the case, highlighting the key points that the attorney intends to prove. After that, it often details the witnesses who will be called, what they will say, and how their testimony fits into the overall narrative. It can also outline the physical or scientific evidence that will be presented.

Additionally, a lawyer may use them to point out flaws in the other side’s case. This strategy can be used to cast doubt on the opposition’s version of events and to convince the jury of the strength of their argument.

Limitations of Opening Statements

Despite their importance, it’s essential to remember that opening statements have limitations. Neither side is allowed to argue its case fully at this time. Instead, they can only summarize the evidence they intend to present. Afterward, the real argument happens through the presentation of evidence and the questioning of witnesses.

Also, while the lawyer can express their view of the case, they must not give their personal opinion. For instance, an attorney can’t say they believe their client is innocent or that the defendant is guilty. These are determinations for the jury to make, not the attorney.

The Order

In a criminal trial, the prosecution gives its opening statement first. This order happens because the prosecution has the burden of proof. In other words, it’s up to the prosecution to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. After the prosecution, the defense gives its opening statement. In some cases, the defense may choose to delay its opening statement until after the prosecution has presented its case.

All in all, opening statements play a vital role in the criminal justice process. They serve to outline each side’s arguments and prepare the jury for the evidence they will hear. Whether you’re studying law, serving on a jury, or just interested in the workings of our criminal justice system, understanding opening statements is crucial.

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Last Modified: 07/11/2023

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