WHAT ARE THE STEPS OF A CRIMINAL TRIAL?

Attorney James K. Minick

Attorney James Minick — The NC DWI Guy

When a criminal defendant is charged with a crime, whether by the state or federal government, this sets up the possibility of a criminal trial to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the crime. Although every defendant is entitled to a trial, many cases do not wind up going to trial due to the common practice of plea bargaining. However, if a defendant’s case does go to trial, what are the steps of a trial?

Timeline

Judge or Jury Trial – Before a trial can start, it must be determined whether the trial will be held in front of a judge or a jury. For misdemeanor charges, almost all trials will happen in District Court, where a judge hears the case alone. These results can be appealed up to Superior Court. Additionally, felony cases are heard in Superior Court.

Jury Selection or “Voir dire” – During voir dire, the prosecution and the defense get to choose or eliminate individuals from a jury through a procedural process that includes surveying the individuals on specific issues and a set number of discretionary eliminations.

Evidentiary Issues – Pre-trial Motions – Prior to a trial, the prosecution and the defense will make various motions to determine the admission or exclusion of evidence and other procedural matters.

Opening Statements – At the beginning of the trial, both the prosecution and defense will make opening statements to the jury. At that time, both sides will tell their version of what happened and give the jury a general idea of how the case will progress.

Prosecution’s Case-In-Chief – The prosecution’s case-in-chief is the official title for the part of the trial in which the prosecution calls witnesses and presents evidence to show that the defendant is guilty.

Cross-Examination – During the prosecution’s case-in-chief, the defense is allowed to cross examine the witnesses in order to poke holes in the prosecution’s case.

Redirect – After a cross-examination, the prosecution is entitled to an opportunity to negate some of the issues the defense has raised during cross-examination by asking additional questions of the witness.

Prosecution Rests – After the prosecution has completed presenting its case-in-chief, the prosecution will formally rest their case.

Motion to Dismiss – Following the prosecution’s case-in-chief, the defense will typically make a Motion to Dismiss the case for lack of sufficient evidence.

Ruling on Motion to Dismiss – After the defense makes their Motion to Dismiss, the judge will make a ruling on this motion. Generally, this motion is almost always denied.

Defense’s Case-In-Chief – The defense’s case-in-chief is the official title for the part of the trial in which the defense calls witnesses and presents evidence to show that the defendant is not guilty.

Cross-Examination – During the defense’s case-in-chief, the defense is allowed to cross examine the witnesses in order to poke holes in the prosecution’s case.

Redirect – After a cross-examination, the defense is entitled to an opportunity to negate some of the issues the prosecution has raised during cross-examination by asking additional questions of the witness.

Defense Rests – After the defense has completed presenting its case-in-chief, the defense will formally rest their case.

Prosecution Rebuttal – Following the defense’s case-in-chief, the prosecution is sometimes allowed to briefly rebut the defense’s case-in-chief by offering evidence and witnesses.

Determining Jury Instructions – The prosecution and the defense have a conference with the judge to determine the appropriate instructions to give to the jury prior to jury deliberations.

Prosecution’s Closing Arguments – The prosecution makes their closing arguments to the jury. At this point, the prosecution will generally make its arguments, refresh the jury of the testimony and facts they heard, and ask for a guilty verdict.

Defense’s Closing Arguments – The defense makes their closing arguments to the jury. At this point, the defense will generally make its arguments, refresh the jury of the testimony and facts they heard, poke holes in the prosecution’s arguments, and ask for a verdict of not guilty.

Prosecution’s Rebuttal – Following the defense’s closing argument, the prosecution is given an opportunity to rebutt the defense’s closing argument through the use of the last words. The prosecution will often remind the jury or certain facts or testimony.

Jury Instructions – After closing arguments are finished, the jury is given its instructions by the judge regarding how they are to analyze the case and apply the law.

Jury Deliberations – After hearing their instructions, the jury retires to a jury room in order to come to a verdict.

Verdict – Following deliberations, the jury must come up with a verdict. This verdict must be unanimous. Generally, the jury can find the defendant: guilty or not guilty. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision, it is considered to be a hung jury and the trial is declared a mistrial.

Post-Trial Motions – Following the verdict, if the jury finds the defendant guilty, the defense will make a motion for the judge to overrule the jury’s verdict.

Ruling on Post-Trial Motions – After the defense has made this motion, typically, the judge will deny the motion.

Sentencing – If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will then sentence the defendant to a punishment for the crime.

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