When your court date arrives, you need to be ready. This includes not only having a thoroughly-prepared defense but understanding what to expect in the courtroom as well.
Whether you are facing charges for simple marijuana possession or a serious felony with the potential for spending years behind bars, walking into the courtroom on your trial date can often feel like too much to bear. Understanding what to expect can help calm your nerves and allow you to present yourself to the judge and jury in a more favorable light.
What to Expect on the Day of Your Criminal Trial?
For the purposes of this article, we are centering on the major components of a typical one-day trial. If you are facing serious felony charges, you will go through much the same process, but your trial may take place over the course of several days or weeks.
So, here is what happens when you show up in court:
There are several things your lawyer will do before your case gets to trial, but on trial day, the first step is jury selection, or “voir dire.” During jury selection, your defense attorney, the prosecutor, and maybe the judge will pose a series of questions to a pool of potential jurors. Both attorneys will then strike potential jury members until the final panel is set.
If you waive your right to trial by jury you will have what is known as a “bench trial,” which simply means that the judge will play the role of the fact-finder.
After the judge rules on any preliminary motions, your defense attorney and the prosecutor will then have the opportunity to present their opening statements. The prosecution always goes first, and then your lawyer will have the option to either present next, reserve his or her opening statement for the start of your case-in-chief, or decline to present any opening statement at all.
After opening statements, the prosecution will present its case-in-chief. This involves questioning witnesses under oath and presenting other evidence in order to try to convince the judge or jury that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Your defense attorney will cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses at this time as well.
Next, your lawyer will present your case-in-chief. This follows the same process as the prosecution’s case-in-chief, except that the aim is on casting doubt on the prosecution’s evidence. Remember, your defense attorney does not need to prove that you are innocent. Instead, the goal of your case-in-chief is to convince the jury that there are enough holes in the prosecutor’s case that they can’t convict you of the crimes alleged.
After the defense rests, the prosecution will have the opportunity to present rebuttal witnesses.
Once the prosecution rests, then the attorneys for both sides will present their closing arguments. This involves summarizing the evidence and explaining how it shows that you are guilty (for the prosecutor) or that the prosecution has not met its burden of proof (for the defense). Here too, the prosecution goes first, the defense goes second, and then the prosecution goes last with a rebuttal.
Jury Instructions, Deliberations, and Verdict
Assuming you have a jury trial, after closing arguments the attorneys for both sides will present instructions for the judge to read to the jury. After receiving their instructions, the jury will deliberate before returning a verdict of either “guilty” or “not guilty” for each of the crimes alleged. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the judge may be forced to declare a mistrial.
If you are found guilty, the final phase of the trial is sentencing. Sentencing may occur on the same day, or the judge may schedule sentencing for a separate hearing. If you are found not guilty on all charges, there will be no sentencing phase, and you will be free to go.
Find Out More about How to Fight Your Criminal Charges
The criminal defense attorneys of The Criminal Defense Firm provide vigorous representation with an unparalleled experience. If you have been arrested and are facing trial, we urge you to contact us for a free case assessment now.
Dr. Nick Oberheiden is a national litigation and trial criminal defense attorney who practices exclusively in the area of federal law.