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Criminal Trial - Civil Versus Criminal Trends

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Criminal trials differ from civil trials in several important respects. For one, criminal trials are always prosecuted on behalf of the state, not on behalf of victims or individual citizens. Thus a prosecutor in deciding whether or not to prosecute a possible crime or whether to offer a defendant a plea bargain has to make decisions in the public interest. For this reason, the head of each prosecuting agency is typically an elected public official who must answer to the voters for the decisions of the office.

Another important difference between criminal cases and civil cases is that criminal cases are regulated by the Constitution to a much greater extent than civil cases. Many provisions of the Bill of Rights, such as the right to indictment by grand jury, the right to counsel, the protection against compulsory self-incrimination, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a speedy trial are directed only to criminal cases. This concern in the Constitution reflects the fact that, unlike civil cases which are usually concerned with money damages, what hangs in the balance in a criminal case is usually the freedom of the defendant and, sometimes, even the life of the defendant. For this reason, the Constitution provides defendants with guarantees aimed at ensuring that their treatment at the hands of the state is proper and that the trials they receive will be fair.

Burden of proof. The most important procedural difference between civil trials and criminal trials is the difference in the burden of proof. In civil trials where, for example, driver Smith claims that driver Jones was at fault in causing an accident and thus was responsible for Smith's damages, Smith must prove Jones's negligence by a preponderance of the evidence. This simply means that the jury must find Smith's evidence on the issue more convincing, even if only slightly so, than any evidence Jones offers. The scale must tip at least a bit in Smith's favor for Smith to prevail.

In a criminal trial the situation is quite different: the prosecution must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is obviously a very heavy burden of proof. To explain its meaning a standard jury instruction tells jurors that in order to find the defendant guilty they must be convinced by "proof of such convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it in the most important of his or her own affairs" (Devitt, Blackmar, and Wolff, p. 354). If, after hearing all the evidence, a jury has a reasonable doubt, then it must return a verdict of not guilty.

The reasonable-doubt standard in criminal cases is constitutionally required, and it has long been viewed as a central safeguard against erroneous conviction and the resulting loss of the wrongly convicted defendant's liberty and good name. Because a defendant in a criminal trial has at stake interests of immense importance, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that due process demands that the margin of error in criminal cases be reduced in the defendant's favor by placing on the prosecution the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)).

Implications of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The most obvious implication of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is that criminal cases are almost always close cases. The prosecution may have a strong case against a defendant, and yet, given the heavy burden of proof, it may still not be able to obtain a conviction from a jury. The jury may return a verdict of not guilty, even in a strong case, because the prosecution was not able to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

A second implication of the heavy burden of proof placed on the prosecution by the Anglo-American system of criminal procedure has to do with the meaning of a not guilty verdict. News accounts sometimes report that a jury in a criminal case "found the defendant innocent," and this seems to imply that the jury was convinced that the defendant was innocent or that it perhaps found the defendant's evidence more likely to be true than the prosecution's evidence. But a jury that has been properly instructed on the burden of proof and the meaning of proof beyond a reasonable doubt will often find the prosecution's evidence to be far stronger than the defendant's and yet feel compelled to acquit the defendant. Even if the defendant's explanation is rather implausible, it may leave the jury with a reasonable doubt and thus entitle the defendant to an acquittal. In short, the task of the defense in a criminal trial is not to convince the jury of the defendant's innocence, but rather to convince the jury that a reasonable doubt remains as to the defendant's guilt and that the defendant must thus be acquitted.

Adversarial versus inquisitorial trial systems. It is often suggested that Western trial systems can be divided neatly into those that are adversarial and those that are inquisitorial. In adversarial systems responsibility for the production of evidence is placed on the opposing attorneys with the judge acting as a neutral referee between the parties. By contrast, in inquisitorial trial systems responsibility for the production of evidence at trial is the job of the trial judge and it is the trial judge who decides which witnesses will be called at trial and who does most of the questioning of witnesses.

According to this claimed division among Western trial systems, the trial systems in the United States and England are considered adversarial in nature while those on the Continent in countries such as France or Germany are supposed to be inquisitorial.

But this distinction is not clear today. One reason for this is that European trial systems have all incorporated some adversarial features into their systems. Thus, for example, lawyers in Europe today have the right to question witnesses and they can also demand that certain witnesses be called to testify. By the same token, in the American criminal trial system trial judges are not always passive. They have the right to ask questions of witnesses and even to call witnesses not called by either party. Particularly, when a jury has been waived by the defendant, trial judges can be quite active in questioning witnesses.

But even if there is no litmus test that sharply distinguishes adversarial trial systems from those that are inquisitorial, it certainly remains accurate that the adversarial elements are much more emphasized in the American trial system. American lawyers have much more responsibility for the production and presentation of evidence than do lawyers in other Western trial systems, and trial judges in the United States tend to be much more passive at trial than judges in other Western trial systems. A trial in the United States is conceptualized as a battle in which the trial judge is a neutral and passive referee between the two combatants with the ultimate decision to be made by a jury.

Discovery in civil versus criminal cases. Another important difference between civil and criminal cases that affects what takes place in the courtroom is the difference in the amount of discovery that is permitted in preparing for trial. Discovery is the process by which each side preparing for trial learns about the witnesses and other evidence that the other side intends to introduce at trial.

In civil cases there is very broad discovery. For example, in civil cases both parties have the right prior to trial to take depositions of persons with information about the issues at stake in the lawsuit. A deposition provides an opportunity for lawyers on both sides of the case to question a person under oath in the presence of a court reporter who makes a record of what is said. As a result of this face-to-face questioning, the lawyers will not only learn all the information that the person being deposed may later present at trial, but they may also develop a good idea of how the witness will be perceived by a jury and thus will be able to plan for the examination or cross-examination accordingly.

Although there is considerable variation in criminal discovery from one jurisdiction to another, many jurisdictions do not require the prosecution even to disclose the names of the witnesses whom it intends to call at trial, let alone allow the defense to take wide-ranging depositions from them.

In short, in criminal cases the amount of information available to the prosecution and the defense will usually be much less than would be available to opposing sides in a civil lawsuit. As a result of this limited discovery, prosecutors and defense attorneys often question witnesses for the opposing side to whom they have not talked before the trial. Indeed, there may be witnesses of whose existence they were not even aware prior to the trial. This adds an element of uncertainty and surprise that further distinguishes criminal from civil trials.

Criminal Trial - The Atmosphere Surrounding The Trial [next]

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over 3 years ago

Do you have the absolute right to call witnesses in a civil hearing?

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over 3 years ago

i want to know if the case is in primary hearing and i already sent my objection and public not yet given answers now will it be fear to start listerning the case?