Criminal Trial Process

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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The Criminal Trial Process

This document describes the Criminal Trial Process:

  • How is a jury selected?
  • What happens during the opening statements?
  • What happens during the presentation of the case?
  • What happens during the closing statements?
  • What happens during the jury deliberation?
  • What is the verdict?


Criminal trials, like civil trials, can be divided into six major parts:

1. Jury selection
2. Opening statements
3. Presentation of case
4. Closing statements
5. Jury deliberation
6. Verdict

There is a major difference between a civil and a criminal trial, however. Certain constitutional guaranties apply to criminal procedures that do not apply to civil trials, including the right to have an attorney, the right of the accused to confront witnesses against him or her, and the right to a jury trial. Making sure these rights are provided is the concern of the judge in a criminal trial. In a civil trial, the judge's concern is simply to ensure that the rules of civil procedure are followed.

Why is the court more concerned about the protection of rights in a criminal trial than in a civil trial?

A main reason is that the government both prosecutes and tries a criminal case. Defendants need the protection from the government that the U.S. and Georgia constitutions provide. In a civil case, both parties are considered to be on equal terms.

Another reason is the seriousness of what can happen in a criminal trial. Defendants may lose their liberty, civil rights, and even their lives (if the death penalty is imposed). In a civil trial, money, property, or a person's good name are the only things at stake.
The procedures in a criminal trial are very much like those in a civil trial. As you may recall, the two parties are called the plaintiff and the defendant in a civil case. In a criminal proceeding, they are referred to as the prosecution (or "the state)" and the defendant, respectively.

Jury Selection-Voir Dire

The first step, the selection of the jury, is handled as in a civil case. Each attorney asks questions aimed at determining if the jurors will be fair and impartial. Each side is permitted unlimited strikes for cause - if, for example, an attorney suspects that a potential jury member might be prejudiced or have personal knowledge of the facts.

Each attorney is also allowed a limited number of peremptory strikes. With peremptory strikes, lawyers can eliminate jurors who they feel might damage their case without having to give a reason why. However, they may never strike a juror because of race or sex. In jury selection, both the prosecution and defense try to choose jurors with whom they feel comfortable and who they think will consider the case fairly.

The following case will give you an example of how a criminal trial might go:

Opening Statements

In a criminal case, the prosecutor has the right to make the first opening statement. Opening statements are usually brief and are designed to acquaint a jury with both sides of the case. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney say what they will try to prove during the trial.

The prosecutor outlines the formal charges made against the defendant. He or she asks the jury to consider the evidence pre-sented in support of each charge.

Presentation of the Case

The presentation of the case is the main part of the trial. The prosecution always has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution presents its evi-dence first, and the defense goes last. The order of presentation gives the defense the opportunity to rebut (oppose) the prosecution's evidence.

For each crime, there is a set of elements that must be proved by the prosecution. These elements are like pieces of a puzzle. Once collected and put together, they should establish a clear picture of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In a crime such as in the Central City Drug Bust, the prosecutor must prove the following elements:

• that each of the defendants had in his or her pos-session sufficient quantities of the drugs to constitute possession for sale;

• that the drugs in question were actually drugs of the kind that the prosecutor claims them to be;

• that the defendants acted in a manner so as to be guilty of the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor; and

• that the defendants acted in a way that resulted in the sale of illicit drugs.

To prove its case, the prosecution presents evidence and puts witnesses on the stand to testify. The police officers would testify about the arrest and the evidence seized. The prosecution also would introduce evidence such as weapons, fingerprints, drugs, and various documents.

The prosecution is permitted to introduce a defendant's previous criminal record (if any) under only two conditions:

1. the defendant introduces evidence of good moral character or
2. the previous conviction closely relates to the current crime.

After each witness is presented to the jury, the defense may cross-examine him or her. The rules of evidence apply in criminal cases as well.

Once the prosecution "rests its case," the defense presents its evidence. The defense's presentation is made in the same way as that of the prosecution. The prosecutor has the same opportunity to cross-examine the defense witnesses as the defense did prosecution witnesses.

Who will appear as witnesses for the defense depends on the defense strategy.

In some instances, the defense may choose not to offer new evidence. Its entire case may consist of attempting to discredit the prosecution's testimony. This strategy is intended to leave the jury with a reasonable doubt concerning the defendant's guilt, in which case the jury must return a verdict of not guilty.

Closing Statements

In these statements, each attorney attempts to convince the jury that his or her case should be believed over that of the opposing side. Remember, the attorneys cannot speak about anything in their closing statements that was not presented during the trial, but either side may draw conclusions from the facts and evidence the jury has seen or heard.

Jury Deliberation and Verdict

When the presentation part of the trial is over, the judge charges the jury. That is, the judge instructs the jury about the law that must be applied to the case at hand. The judge tells the jury about the concept of burden of proof. He or she explains that the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants are guilty of the crimes charged. The judge would say something like, "If you believe the evidence is sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt to convict the defendants of these offenses, then it is your duty to convict."

The judge reminds jurors that their duty is to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty on each charge listed in the indictment. On each charge, if the verdict is for conviction, it must be unanimous. Finally, the judge reminds the jurors that if they do not find the evidence to be sufficient or if they have a reasonable doubt, then it would be their duty to find the defendants not guilty.

After being charged, the jurors retire to the jury room to deliberate. When they reach a verdict, the parties and jurors return to the courtroom. The judge asks the defendants to stand and face the jury. The foreman of the jury (a jury member who is selected to act as the spokesperson) then gives the verdict to the judge or court clerk to be read aloud. The judge thanks the jurors and dismisses them from further service.

If the verdict is not guilty, the defendant is freed by the court. That person cannot be tried again for that particular crime. If the verdict is guilty, the judge sentences the defendant or calls for a presentence investigation and report. When the report is ready, the judge sets a date to bring the defendant back to court for sentencing.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004