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Trial

Trial Participants

Judge The judge presides over the court and is the central figure in a trial. It is the presiding judge's responsibility to conduct an orderly trial and to assure the proper administration of justice in his court. The judge decides all legal questions that arise during the trial, controls the presentation of evidence by the parties, instructs the jury, and generally directs every aspect of the trial. The judge must be impartial, and any matter that lends even the appearance of impartiality to the trial may disqualify the judge. Because of his importance, the presiding judge must be present in court from the opening of the trial until its close and must be easily accessible during jury trials while the jury is deliberating on its verdict.

The judge holds a place of honor in the courtroom. The judge sits above the attorneys, the parties, the jury, and the witness stand. Everyone in the courtroom must stand when the judge enters or exits the courtroom. The judge is addressed as "your Honor" or "the Court." In the United States, judges usually wear black robes during trials, which signify the judges' importance. The judge will conduct the trial with dignity. If the judge feels that a person is detracting from the dignity of the proceedings or otherwise disrupting the courtroom, he or she may have the person removed.

A trial judge has broad powers in his courtroom. In general, the presiding judge has discretion on all matters relating to the orderly conduct of a trial, except those matters regulated by rule or statute. The judge controls routine matters such as the time when court convenes and adjourns and the length of a recess. When the parties offer evidence, the judge rules on any legal objections. The judge also instructs the jury on the law after all of the evidence has been submitted.

Although the judge has broad discretion during the trial, his rulings must not be ARBITRARY or unfair. Also, the judge must not prejudice the jury against any of the parties. Unless special circumstances are present, however, a party can do little during the trial if it disagrees with a ruling by the judge. The judge's decision is usually final for the duration of the trial, and the party's only recourse is to appeal the judge's decision after the trial has ended.

Parties In a trial, the term party refers to an individual, organization, or government that participates in the trial and has an interest in the trial's outcome. The main parties to a lawsuit are the plaintiff and the defendant. In a civil trial, the plaintiff initiates the lawsuit and seeks a remedy from the court for private civil wrongs allegedly committed by the defendant or defendants. There may be more than one plaintiff in a civil trial if they allege similar wrongs against a common defendant. In a criminal trial, the plaintiff is the government, and the defendant is an individual accused of a crime.

A party in a civil trial may be represented by counsel or may represent himself. Each party has a fundamental right to be present at every critical stage of the proceedings, although this right is not absolute. A party may, however, choose not to attend the trial and be represented in court solely by an attorney. The absence of a party does not deprive the court of jurisdiction. The court must afford the parties the opportunity to be present, but if the opportunity is given, a party's absence does not affect the court's right to proceed with the civil trial.

In a criminal trial, the government is represented by an attorney, known as the prosecutor, who seeks to prove the guilt of the defendant. Although a criminal defendant may represent himself during trial, he is entitled to representation by counsel. If a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for him. A criminal defendant has a constitutional right in most jurisdictions to be present at every critical stage of the trial, from jury selection to sentencing. Also, many court decisions have held that the trial of an accused without his presence at every critical stage of the trial violates his constitutional right to DUE PROCESS. A defendant may waive this right and choose not to attend the trial or portions of the trial.

Jury The jury is a group of citizens who are charged with finding facts and reaching a verdict based on the evidence presented during the trial. The jury renders a verdict decisive of the action by applying the facts to the law, which is explained to the jury by the judge. The jury is chosen from the men and women in the community where the trial is held. The number of jurors required for the trial is set by statute or court rule. Criminal trials usually require 12 jurors, whereas civil trials commonly use six-person juries. Also, alternate jurors are selected in the event that a regular juror becomes unable to serve during the trial. Longer trials require more alternate jurors. The jurors sit in the jury box and observe all of the evidence offered during the trial. After the evidence is offered, the judge instructs the jury on the law, and the jury then begins deliberations, after which it will render a verdict based on the evidence and the judge's instructions on the law. In civil trials, the jury determines whether the defendant is liable for the injuries claimed by the plaintiff. In criminal trials, the jury determines the guilt of the accused.

Attorneys Every party in a trial has the right to be represented by an attorney or attorneys, although a party is free to conduct the trial himself. If a party elects to be represented by an attorney, the court must hear the attorney's arguments; to refuse to hear the attorney would deny the party DUE PROCESS OF LAW. In a criminal trial, the defendant has a right to be represented by an attorney, or attorneys, of his choosing. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, and the crime is more serious than a petty offense, the court will appoint one for him. An indigent party in a civil lawsuit is generally not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, although a court may appoint an attorney to represent an indigent prisoner in a CIVIL RIGHTS case.

The attorneys are present in a trial to represent the parties, but they also have a duty to see that the trial is fair and impartial. The trial judge may dismiss an attorney or impose other sanctions for improper conduct. Thus, attorneys must at all times conform their conduct to the law. Attorneys must avoid any conduct that might tend to improperly influence the jury. Also, attorneys' conduct is governed by various ethical rules. Within these bounds, however, the attorney may zealously represent her client and conduct the trial as she sees fit.

Witnesses Witnesses provide the chief means by which evidence is offered in a trial. Through witnesses, a party will attempt to establish the facts that make up the elements of his case. A witness may testify on virtually any matter if the matter is relevant to the issues in the trial and the witness observed or has knowledge of the events to which he is testifying. Witnesses are also used to provide the foundation for documents and other physical evidence. For example, if the state wishes to introduce the defendant's fingerprints from a crime scene in a criminal trial, it must call as a witness the police officer who identified the fingerprints in order for the fingerprints to be admitted as evidence. The police officer would testify that he found the fingerprints at the crime scene and that he determined that the fingerprints matched the defendant's fingerprints.

A witness must testify truthfully. Before giving testimony in a trial, a witness takes an oath or affirmation to tell the truth; a witness who refuses the oath or affirmation will not be permitted to testify. A typical oath states, "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God." The exact wording of the oath is not important, however. As long as the judge is satisfied that the witness will tell the truth, the witness may take the witness stand. A witness who testifies falsely commits the crime of perjury.

Virtually anyone may be a witness in a trial. Generally, a person is competent to be a witness in a trial if he is able to perceive, remember, and communicate the events to which he is to testify and understands his obligation to tell the truth. Thus, even a young child may be a witness, as long as the judge is satisfied that the child is able to relate the events to which he will testify and understands that he must tell the truth. Similarly, people with mental disabilities may testify at a trial if they meet the same criteria.

One special type of witness is an expert witness. Normally, a witness may only testify as to what she saw, heard, or otherwise observed. An expert witness, if properly qualified, may offer her opinion on the subject of her expertise. Expert witnesses are used when the subject matter of the witness's testimony is outside the jury's common knowledge or experience. Expert witness testimony is often extremely important in lawsuits. For example, in a criminal trial where the defendant pleads the INSANITY DEFENSE, the experts' opinions on whether the defendant was insane at the time of the crime will most likely decide the outcome of the trial.

Support Personnel A number of people may assist the trial judge in conducting the trial. The court reporter, also known as the stenographer, records every word stated during the trial, except where the judge holds a conference off the record. The court reporter prepares an official transcript of the trial if a party requests it. The bailiff is an officer of the court who keeps order in the courtroom, has custody of the jury, and has custody of prisoners who appear in the courtroom. In federal court, U.S. MARSHALS have custody of prisoners who appear in court. A language interpreter is present in a courtroom when a party or witness is unable to speak English. Finally, most judges have a law clerk who assists the judge in conducting research and drafting legal opinions.

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