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Criminal Trial - The Steps In A Criminal Trial

witness witnesses examination jury

Jury selection. While technically a trial begins when the jury is sworn in at the end of the jury selection process, jury selection is considered so important by trial lawyers that it is appropriate to consider jury selection as the first step in a criminal trial.

During jury selection either the lawyers or the trial judge will question potential jurors to make sure that they can be fair in deciding the case. As a result of such questioning, if the prosecutor or the defense attorney believes a certain juror cannot be fair and impartial either lawyer can challenge that juror for cause. If the trial judge agrees, the potential juror will be removed from the panel of jurors.

A second way a prosecutor or defense attorney can remove a potential juror is through a peremptory challenge. A peremptory challenge permits a lawyer to remove a possible juror without the necessity of showing a reason. Each jurisdiction allots a certain number of peremptory challenges to each side in a criminal case, and the number usually varies depending on factors such as the size of the jury or the seriousness of the crime. While the number varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, in a routine criminal case, such as a burglary or a theft case, the prosecutor and the defense attorney will often have five or six peremptory challenges at their disposal.

Opening statements. Because a trial can last days or even weeks, obviously it will be easier for jurors to understand how the bits and pieces of evidence that come to their attention fit together if they can be given an overview of the issues and evidence that will be central to the trial. This overview is provided by the opening statements that are delivered by the lawyers at the start of the trial.

The prosecution's opening takes place after the jury has been selected and sworn, but before the first witness has been called to testify. Although the opening does not supply the jury with any evidence (the evidence comes only from the witness stand and whatever exhibits are admitted at trial), nonetheless the prosecution's opening statement is very important. First, it provides an opportunity to explain the nature of the charge, or charges, for which the defendant is on trial. Some charges are easily understood by a jury, and in such instances it may be sufficient for the prosecutor simply to read the charging document as part of the opening. But other trials involving more complex charges, such as conspiracy or fraud, may require a more careful explanation of the elements involved.

A second function of the prosecutor's opening is to explain the evidence that will be produced in an attempt to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This preliminary overview of the case is especially important if the trial will be protracted. But even in a trial lasting a relatively short time, an explanation of the prosecution's case can be important because witnesses may not always be able to testify in the order that a logical presentation of the evidence might suggest. For example, a fingerprint expert may have to testify early in the case, if other obligations make it impossible for the expert to appear later in the trial. But it may only be later in the trial that the gun which the fingerprint expert examined is connected to the defendant. An opening statement can help the jury understand how all the evidence fits together.

An opening statement is also important in a case that is based on a number of pieces of circumstantial evidence. In such a case, there may be no one witness who can tie the whole case together. A jury may grow bored or even frustrated as the prosecutor questions a witness at length about some apparently minor detail whose importance will be apparent only later in the trial. An opening statement helps the jury understand the significance of such pieces of evidence. It is easier for the jury to be patient while the prosecutor elicits testimony about a particular piece of evidence if the jury understands how that evidence fits into the mosaic.

Finally, opening statements are also exercises in persuasion. The opening and closing statements are the only opportunities the lawyers have to speak directly to the jury, and trial lawyers recognize the lasting impression that a clear, forceful, and logical opening statement can make on the jury.

Although the prosecutor always delivers his opening statement at the start of the trial, in many jurisdictions the defense attorney has a choice. The defense can present its opening after that of the prosecutor, or can reserve it until the prosecution has finished presenting its case and the defense is about to begin its own case.

Calling witnesses. The U.S. system of criminal trials is a part of the Anglo-American adversary system, under which trials are controlled to a large extent by the opposing sides. Each side presents its case and vigorously argues the merits of its evidence while attacking, as energetically as is proper, the evidence supporting the opposing side. The selection and questioning of witnesses is thus primarily the obligation of the opposing lawyers. Although a judge in a criminal case may occasionally call a witness and is permitted to ask questions of witnesses, by tradition the role of the judge is that of a neutral referee between the prosecution and the defense.

Both the prosecutor and the defendant have the power to subpoena witnesses who have relevant testimony to offer at trial. In fact, the Sixth Amendment specifically guarantees that a defendant have "compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor." This subpoena power is necessary because many witnesses would prefer not to testify at trial, especially if there is likely to be a rigorous cross-examination.

Although subpoena power in criminal cases is broad, there are privileges that restrict the ability to call to the stand certain witnesses. For example, the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination bars the prosecution from calling the defendant as a witness as part of its case. Some states also have enacted laws providing for a marital privilege, which bars the prosecution from calling as a witness the spouse of the defendant if the defendant objects to having the spouse testify.

Even if there is no bar to calling certain witnesses to the stand, privileges may still protect certain matters from being revealed at trial. Thus, a witness for either the prosecution or the defense may refuse to answer certain questions out of fear that his answers will incriminate him. (Sometimes the prosecution will avoid this problem by granting the witness immunity.) Or a witness may invoke a number of other privileges, for example, the doctor-patient privilege or the priest-penitent privilege. Such privileges are designed to protect confidential communications arising out of these relationships from subsequent disclosure, even at a trial.

Exclusion of witnesses from the courtroom. The prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and always presents its case first. But before any witnesses are called to the stand, it is frequently moved by either the prosecution or the defense that all witnesses be sequestered. This means that all witnesses who will be called at the trial are ordered to remain outside the courtroom until it is time for a particular witness to take the stand. Thus, a witness who is called late in the trial will not have heard the testimony of earlier witnesses. It is believed that sequestration helps discourage fabrication or collusion and also helps expose any inaccuracies in testimony.

Motions for sequestration of witnesses are usually routinely granted, and in most jurisdictions there is a right to sequestration by either side. There are, however, some exceptions. Usually a person whose presence in the courtroom is essential to the presentation of the case, such as the police officer who investigated the case, will be permitted to remain in the courtroom. The defendant, of course, has a constitutional right to be present and thus must also be permitted to remain in the courtroom even if he or she intends to testify. Finally, some states have exempted crime victims from sequestration rules and permit the victim to remain in the courtroom throughout the trial.

Examination of witnesses. The general sequence of the witnesses at a trial is as follows. First, the prosecution presents its direct case, aimed at proving that the defendant committed the crime in question. When the prosecution has finished with the presentation of its case against the defendant, the defendant has an opportunity to call witnesses and put on a defense. If the defendant chooses to put on a defense, the prosecution is then permitted to call additional witnesses to rebut the defense witnesses.

For example, the prosecution may present a series of witnesses in an effort to show that the defendant robbed a certain bank on a certain date. The defense may then call witnesses with the aim of establishing that at the time of the robbery the defendant was bowling at a certain bowling alley and thus could not have robbed the bank. Finally, the prosecution may call employees of the bowling alley in question to try to prove that the defendant was not at that bowling alley at the time of the robbery.

Each witness called to testify is questioned first by the side that called the witness. This is known as the direct examination of the witness. When the direct examination is over, the lawyer for the opposing side is permitted to question the witness in what is called cross-examination. After cross-examination is completed, the side that originally called the witness may question him in what is called redirect examination. This is usually limited to explaining or developing matters that were raised during the cross-examination. In some instances, if new matter has come out in redirect examination, a judge has permission to permit recross-examination.

The main difference between direct examination and cross-examination is the manner of questioning. In cross-examination an attorney is permitted to ask leading questions, which suggest the desired answer and usually call for a yes or no response. But in direct examination the questions should not be leading. Thus, in direct examination of a witness to a robbery, it would be improper for the prosecutor to ask a series of questions such as "And the man you saw robbing the bank was six feet tall, wasn't he?" or "And he was dressed in jeans and a green sweater, wasn't he?" On the other hand, questions of the same form would be permitted in cross-examination, for example, "It's true, isn't it, that you only saw the robber for fifteen seconds?" and "Isn't it a fact that you were very frightened at that time?"

The distinction between the form of questions permitted in direct examination and the form permitted in cross-examination reflects the fact that the witness's testimony usually is favorable to the side calling the witness, and unfavorable to the other side. In examining a witness called by the other side whose testimony is damaging, leading questions are needed in order to make an effective challenge to the witness's perception, memory, or credibility.

In addition, since each side usually calls witnesses who are generally cooperative and whose testimony is helpful to it, leading questions are not needed in direct examination. The attorney for that side has generally gone over the questions with the witness outside the courtroom, and sometimes there have been several rehearsals of the trial testimony in the days before trial. Given the reality of extensive witness preparation that takes place prior to important trials, there is less need for leading questions in direct examination and more need for leeway in attacking testimony that is not as spontaneous as it may appear to a jury.

Of course, witnesses do not always cooperate with the side that called them, and the leeway permitted in both the scope of examination and the manner of questioning the witness is always a matter for the discretion of the trial judge.

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almost 4 years ago

i love this!!but when does the jury Foreman gets selected?

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over 6 years ago

this info was so cool. it is nice to get a brief overview of what goes on in a court room!Well i do hope that one day i will be standing in the courtroom myself and defending my client with this prior knowledge and much much more to come!

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over 6 years ago

can public procecutor with his power ,can he dismiss the case of murder under trail process on grouds of lacking evidence other than Dying Declaration.pl. explain and and citations if any at the earliest