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Can You Provide A Brief Timeline Of What Happens At A Criminal Trial?


All criminal trials follow the same basic structure, although more serious offenses sometimes require a different amount of jury members and may take a substantially longer period. The basic sequence of events for every criminal trial is as follows: On the day of trial, either side may bring up what are called “Motions in Limine”. These are motions that are brought up right as the trial is beginning, and they are designed to “limit” the evidence or testimony that the other side can present. Often, the issues have been litigated at an earlier court appearance, and the court’s rulings are already in place. The Judge will rule on the motions in limine that are presented by either side before the jury selection process begins.

Jury selection can take anywhere from an hour to two days, depending on the type of case. During jury selection, the State and the defense attorney will have the opportunity to question prospective jurors to find out if they have any hidden prejudices or opinions that may sway them towards one side or the other. Once a jury is selected, they will be sworn in. After the jury is sworn in, they are “empaneled”. If the State cannot present the evidence that they need, and the case is dismissed, it cannot be brought back again once the jury has been empaneled.

After the jury is sworn in, the Judge will give what are known as Opening Instructions. These instructions are basically a summary of how the trial is going to proceed, and a reminder to the jury of their promises and obligations. Then the State will address the jury in an opening statement. This is not an argument, it is merely the time when the State can tell the jury the facts of the case, and what they believe their evidence will show. The defense attorney has the opportunity to make an opening statement as well, although they can reserve it till a later time, or waive it altogether if they do not feel it is necessary, or beneficial to their client.

Once the openings have concluded, the State presents its case. The State will put on testimony from witnesses, some police and some civilians. They may enter objects or documents into evidence and may call an expert witness to help the jury interpret the evidence that has been presented. After each witness testifies, the defense attorney can cross examine them and attempt to poke holes in their testimony. The State may have the option of re direct, to rehabilitate their witness.

After the State has presented all its evidence, the state will “rest”. At that time the defense attorney will make a motion for a directed verdict. This motion is an attempt to convince the judge that the State‘s evidence does not result in enough proof to get a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. Directed verdicts are rarely granted, and at that point the defense has the choice of putting on a defense or remaining silent. If the defense decides to present a case, they will call their own witnesses to testify in support of the defendant. The defendant may also testify, after discussing the benefits or detriment with counsel.

At the end of the defense case, the State may call rebuttal witnesses to try and combat the testimony of the defense witnesses. The defense will have the opportunity to cross examine the rebuttal witnesses as well. After all the testimony has been presented to the jury, it is time for closing arguments. This is the State and Defense’s chance to argue the evidence to the jury and try to persuade them to believe their separate versions of events. The State argues first, and then the defense. However, the State gets a second opportunity to argue, because they have the burden of proof. At the end of the closing arguments, the court will advise the jurors of the final instructions. These essentially describe the law that the jurors are obligated to follow. Then the jurors will go to a private place where they can discuss the evidence and reach a verdict. Once they have decided on a verdict, they will let the court know, and the verdict will be read on the record.

Are Most Trials Jury Trials Or Bench Trials? What Is The Difference?

The majority of criminal trials are jury trials. Pre-trial motions are done in front of the judge. Certain misdemeanor offenses are not entitled to jury trials, but any offense that has a mandatory jail sentence (like a DUI or soliciting) is entitled to a jury trial. A jury trial is a trial in front of jurors, and they are the ones who hear the evidence and make the determination of guilt. A bench trial is a trial just to the judge. The judge hears all the evidence and decides on guilt.

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