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Trial

Historical Background, Pretrial Matters, Trial Participants, Trial Process

A judicial examination and determination of facts and legal issues arising between parties to a civil or criminal action.

In the United States, the trial is the principal method for resolving legal disputes that parties cannot settle by themselves or through less formal methods. The chief purpose of a trial is to secure fair and impartial administration of justice between the parties to the action. A trial seeks to ascertain the truth of the matters in issue between the parties and to apply the law to those matters. Also, a trial provides a final legal determination of the dispute between the parties.

The two main types of trials are civil trials and criminal trials. Civil trials resolve civil actions, which are brought to enforce, redress, or protect private rights. In general, all types of actions other than criminal actions are civil actions. In a criminal trial, a person charged with a crime is found guilty or not guilty and sentenced. The government brings a criminal action on behalf of the citizens to punish an infraction of criminal laws.

The cornerstone of the legal system in the United States is the jury trial. Many of the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which set forth the law of the land, are based on the issues and disputes raised in jury trials. The jury trial method of resolving disputes is premised on the belief that justice is best achieved by pitting the parties against each other as adversaries, with each party advocating its own version of the truth. Under the ADVERSARY SYSTEM, the jury, a group of citizens from the community, decides which facts in dispute are true. A judge presides at the trial and determines and applies the law. At the end of the trial, the judge will enter a judgment that constitutes the decision of the court. The parties must adhere to the judgment of the court.

Not all trials are jury trials. A case may also be tried before a judge. This is known as a court trial or a bench trial. A court trial is basically identical to a jury trial, except the judge decides both the facts and the law applicable to the action. A criminal defendant is always entitled to a trial by jury. Also, common-law civil claims usually are tried by jury. Often, however, actions created by statute may be tried only before the court. In some court trials, the court will have an ADVISORY JURY. The advisory jury observes the proceedings just as an ordinary jury would, but the judge need not accept the advisory jury's verdict.

FURTHER READINGS

Mauet, Thomas A. 1992. Fundamentals of Trial Techniques. Boston: Little, Brown.

Singleton, John V. 1988. "Jury Trial: History and Preservation." Trial Lawyer's Guide 32 (fall).

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