What You Need To Know About A Criminal Trial.
What is a Criminal Trial?
Trials are often portrayed in tv and movies as dramatic events that somehow always seem to be resolved in an hour’s time. Lawyers yelling, the audience chattering and the Judge yelling “Order!” is what the perception is. But is this how a trial works? The answer, like much of what is portrayed by Hollywood, is no. These are dramatizations of what a trial actually is. This is not to say trials are not important and often times life-changing, but a trial in real life work a little different.
To begin with, a trial is a formal setting where both sides, state, and defense, come together to present facts and evidence regarding a certain matter/s. The outcome can be decided by a jury of your peers (6 in a misdemeanor or 12 in a felony) or by the judge of the court. But how does it get from arrest to this?
Once a crime is committed, a formal investigation is carried out by a police agency. The police present their findings to the District Attorney’s (DA) office at which point the DA’s office will then decide to accept or decline charges. If charges are declined, the case can end there or will be investigated further to collect more evidence to be presented again to the DA’s office. If charges are accepted, this means the State of Texas has formally filed charges and a criminal case is now underway.
After the case is filed, it is assigned to a court and a prosecutor. During this pre-trial stage, a prosecutor works on collecting all the evidence, talking to all parties involved, and assessing whether the case is good for a trial. Based on their findings, prosecutors and defense attorney’s will attempt to negotiate an agreement before trial. Depending on the county and court rules, a few months or weeks later, the attorney’s will have to set the case for trial if no negotiation is agreed upon.
After the case is set for trial, both sides prepare by filing appropriate motions, subpoenaing witnesses, and collecting all evidence to present at trial. The actual trial date may take weeks or months to go forward depending on the county and court.
A defendant may elect to have either a bench trial or a jury trial. A bench trial is when a judge is the fact finder while a jury trial requires the judge to play the “referee” and the jury members are the fact finders. Depending on which kind of trial it is, in a jury trial a jury pool will be brought in and questioned by the judge, state, and defense counsel. This process is referred to as voir dire (a preliminary examination of a witness or a juror by a judge or counsel). In misdemeanors, both sides elect 6 jury members and in felonies, they elect 12 jury members. Each side will question the pool of jury members and ask questions not about the facts of the case but on the thoughts on certain cases, personal experiences, and bias the jury members might have. This allows counsel to understand what the jury members are thinking and feeling and if they will be able to sit on the case and decide as impartial and fair jury members. After the jury is questioned, both sides strike certain jury members based off their answers and the finals 6 or 12 are selected to sit on the panel.
Now that the jury is selected, both sides give opening statements are made, followed by the State’s case in chief. This means that the state will have their witnesses testify and present all the evidence against the defendant to meet their burden of proof. Depending on the severity and depth of a case, this could take several days. After the State has presented, the defense has the option of presenting their case. As the burden is on the State to prove guilt, not the defendant to prove innocence, the defense could ask the judge to determine the case based on the facts presented thus far or move the case be submitted to the jury for determination. Often this is not the case however and the defense must present their witnesses and evidence as well. This too could take days depending on the complexity of what is alleged. The last step is closing arguments by both sides and then the case is submitted to the jury for determination.
The jury retires to the jury deliberation room outside the presence of the public. The jury takes as long as they need to unanimously reach a decision of guilty or not guilty. Once they come to a decision, the jury notifies the court, they come back out and their elected foreman reads the verdict to the court. In Texas, the trial process is bifurcated, meaning the first part is the guilt or innocence stage and it plays out like a typical trial as mentioned above. But depending on the outcome of the case, if the defendant is found guilty, the second portion allows the state to present evidence and testimony outside the Rules of Evidence to determine the appropriate level of punishment against the defendant. If the jury finds the accused is innocent the case is over and the defendant is free to go. If the jury decides the defendant is guilty, depending on what the punishment is will determine what will happen next. Punishment can be decided by judge or jury. The defendant has the right to choose. Regardless of guilt or innocence, this is the end of the trial process.
After considering all this, why do people choose to go to trial? What are the advantages and disadvantages of going to trial? Well for starters, if the accused is innocent and the state is refusing to dismiss during pretrial, the only way to get the case resolved favorably would be a not guilty verdict from the jury. Often Immigration consequences are a factor. A conviction of certain crimes could have serious immigration consequences like deportation, ineligibility of naturalization, denial of entry at the border, plus many more. Therefore a deal cannot be struck beforehand and the trial is the only option. Sometimes, the state cannot prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the standard they must meet when presenting the case to the court. Good defense attorneys must always hold the state to this standard and push cases for trial when the state fails to do so and are not willing to dismiss. Sometimes setting a case for trial forces a prosecutor to evaluate a case further resulting in a more favorable outcome. These are just some reason why trials may be sought.
It is important to keep in mind before deciding to pursue trial that there are no guarantees. Not the state or defense know what a jury of 6 or 12 strangers will do. Could be good, could be bad, but the only certainty is that is will be a mystery until the end. If a defendant is found guilty, they run the risk of getting a punishment worse than what was offered during pretrial. As previously mentioned, trials could take weeks or months before they are heard. This means that the accused will still be on bond and perhaps bond conditions, still be required to check in with the court and their bondsman if they sought out help with bail. Waiting for trial is not all fun games.
Even this explanation of the trial process is still somewhat oversimplified. It is important to keep in mind that trials are very long, serious, and tedious processes. When you are charged with a crime, it is important to be patient, calm, and prepared. It is of the utmost importance to have a good lawyer that knows how to evaluate the case, knows the process well, knows how to fight aggressively as well as keep your best interests in mind.
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