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Criminal Trial - The Trial Ends

jury judge closing defendant

Closing arguments. At the conclusion of the presentation of all the evidence there remain two very important steps: closing arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury. In a majority of jurisdictions the closing arguments, or summations, precede the judge's instructions to the jury but in some jurisdictions the judge first instructs the jury and then closing arguments are made.

Closing arguments are vital because a good one can have a strong impact on the jury's deliberations, which begin shortly after the closings take place. For both prosecutor and defense counsel, the closing argument affords an important chance to review the testimony and exhibits that have been admitted during the trial, as well as to argue for any inferences that they may wish the jury to draw from the evidence. Closing arguments are supposed to be argumentative, and appeals to common sense, attacks on the motives and credibility of unfavorable witnesses, and rather emotional pleas for a certain result are common. Closings also provide the opportunity to remind the jury of how the evidence inter-twines with the law, and a good closing argument will weave together favorable evidence and the jury instructions that the lawyer giving the closing believes will support a favorable verdict.

There are some important limitations on the scope of closing arguments. Although a lawyer may argue vigorously for a certain conclusion, it is unethical for a lawyer to assert the lawyer's personal opinion as to the guilt or innocence of an accused (American Bar Association, p. 325). Thus, a defense lawyer may not state in closing that he or she has a reasonable doubt of the client's guilt, but an argument that the evidence at trial clearly raises a reasonable doubt would be proper.

Another, perhaps obvious, restriction on final arguments is that the arguments in closing must be tied to the evidence developed at trial. Inferences and conclusions from the evidence at trial can be argued quite freely, but to mention evidence that was never presented (and perhaps even ruled inadmissible by the trial judge) would be improper.

Still another limitation on closings is related to the defendant's decision whether or not to testify. This decision is often a very important tactical one. For example, if a testifying defendant has been convicted of other serious crimes, the prosecution will often be permitted to attack the defendant's credibility by asking about these convictions and showing that the defendant has indeed been previously convicted. In such a situation a defendant thus must balance the importance of his or her testimony against the fact that the jury will learn of other convictions if he or she testifies.

If the defendant decides not to testify, a prosecutor may not comment in the closing argument on the fact that the defendant did not choose to testify. In Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609 (1965), the Supreme Court indicated that comment by the prosecution on the defendant's failure to testify would violate the Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination. Thus in the closing argument the prosecutor may not argue that an adverse inference should be drawn from the defendant's silence at the trial. To back up this prohibition, if requested by the defendant, the trial judge will specifically instruct the jury that no adverse inference should be drawn from the defendant's decision not to testify.

Instructions to the jury. In speaking of instructions to the jury, it is natural to think first of the instructions at the end of the trial. But although these instructions are of crucial importance, there are often other occasions during the trial when the jury is instructed by the judge. Some judges choose to give a brief instruction on the law controlling the case at the beginning of the trial. Even during the trial, a judge may stop the taking of testimony to instruct the jury about the law surrounding an item of evidence. Thus, to continue the example above, when a defendant is impeached with a prior conviction, a judge should immediately instruct the jury that the conviction can be considered only as it bears on the defendant's credibility and not as evidence of his guilt.

However, it is at the end of trial that the judge gives the complete body of instructions to the jury. The instructions, of course, go into careful detail on the meaning of each of the elements of the crime, but they also cover many other general matters. A jury is usually instructed on such varied matters as the prosecution's burden of proof and the presumption of innocence, the meaning of reasonable doubt, the use of circumstantial evidence, the credibility of witnesses, the jury's role as fact finder, any defenses that have been raised, and the procedures to be followed in the jury room.

Before the judge instructs the jury, the prosecution and the defense will have an opportunity to submit instructions they wish the judge to give the jury. There will also usually be a conference between the judge and the lawyers outside of the hearing of the jury at which the judge hears argument from the lawyers about the instructions to be given.

If, during its deliberations, the jury feels that it needs more guidance, it so informs the judge, and the judge may repeat or further clarify any of the earlier instructions. In addition, if the jury is having difficulty in reaching a verdict, the judge often gives a supplemental instruction asking members of the jury to listen carefully to the arguments of other jurors and encouraging them not to hesitate to reexamine their own views (Lowenfeld v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231, 235 (1988)).

The verdict. In civil trials a jury may be instructed to return either a general verdict (in which the jury simply indicates that it has determined the case for one of the sides) or a special verdict (which can be a rather lengthy list of specific questions on which the jury must reach agreement). As a practical matter in criminal cases, however, juries are always asked to return a general verdict of guilty or not guilty. Indeed, it has even been suggested that a special verdict may be an unconstitutional interference with the right to a jury trial (United States v. Spock, 416 F.2d 165 (1st Cir. 1969)).

In federal courts and in the courts of most states, the verdict of the jury must be unanimous. This is not a constitutional requirement because the Supreme Court in Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U.S. 404 (1972), upheld an Oregon constitutional provision that permitted ten members of a twelve-person jury to render a guilty verdict in a noncapital case. But only Oregon and Louisiana permit nonunanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases.

Of course, not all juries are able to reach a verdict. When a jury indicates that it is deadlocked, the judge usually asks it to continue deliberations until the judge is convinced that further deliberations would be futile. If no verdict can be reached despite continued deliberations, the judge will order the jury discharged. In the event that the first trial ended in a deadlocked ("hung") jury, there is no double jeopardy bar to trying the defendant again.

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