Hollywood has indeed created memorable courtroom dramas: 12 Angry Men; The Verdict; Judgment at Nuremberg; To Kill a Mockingbird; Anatomy of a Murder; A Few Good Men; and my second favorite, My Cousin Vinny. However, in movies, filmmakers are able to set the environment, pick a portion of the trial on which to focus, and create the scene. In an actual trial, the admissible evidence, and presumably what, or what did not, occur, dictate what the jury will see and hear.
The following is a very basic outline of what a felony criminal trial will looks procedurally. Not included in this writing are many crucial issues concerning trial technique, legal objections, and more.
Twelve jurors are selected by the prosecution and defense. The prospective jurors are members of the defendant’s community, and are qualified by the Court to sit as jurors. By law, serving on a jury requires certain basic qualifications, and the Judge questions the panel of jurors and excuses members who do not qualify. Both the prosecution and the defense have a predetermined number of preemptory strikes (the ability to excuse a juror for any reason or no reason – with the exception of a constitutionally impermissible reason such as race).
In addition to using a preemptory strike, a party may request the Court to excuse a potential juror for cause. An example of cause would be a juror who for some reason is unable to be fair and impartial in the particular case. Once a jury of twelve is selected, the Judge administers an oath to the jury, and the jurors swear to abide by that oath. The swearing of the jury is the official start of the trial, for legal issues such as the attachment of double jeopardy.
After some brief remarks by the Judge, the attorneys for each party present an opening statement to the jury. The Judge will advise the jury that the opening statements are not evidence, but rather an outline by the attorneys of what they believe the jury will see and hear in the trial. The Judge will inform the jury that the government has the burden of proving a defendant guilty of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant has no obligation to even present a defense, and that the defendant in a trial is presumed innocent.
However, an experience criminal defense attorney will attest to the fact that an opening statement is much more than that. The opening statement is a party’s first opportunity to bond with the jury, as well as inform the jury of the importance of its role, some legal information such as the law of the offense charged, the concept of reasonable doubt and the burden of proof.
The State’s Case in Chief:
In a felony criminal trial, the prosecuting authority, meaning the State or Federal government, proceeds first in presenting evidence supporting its theory of the case in an attempt to meet its burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence is presented in the form of witness testimony, items of evidence – such as the alleged drugs possessed or sold, the weapon used to commit the alleged crime, audio/video recordings depicting relevant activity, or forensic evidence such as fingerprints or DNA.
The defense attorney is entitled to cross-examine each witness following that witness’s testimony for the government. The purpose of cross-examination is to challenge the evidence presented, and if untrue, to reveal the truth through rigorous questioning. Entire treatises have been written on the subject of cross-examination, and it is one of a criminal defense attorney’s most essential and powerful tools.
Motion for a Directed Verdict of Not Guilty:
Prior to the defense being presented, if one is presented, or prior to closing arguments, if a defense is not presented, the defense will make a motion for a directed verdict of not guilty. The directed verdict motion is based on the argument that taking the case presented by the government in a light most favorable to the government, the evidence presented is insufficient to support a jury verdict of guilty. The relief requested, therefore, is that the Judge enter a verdict of not guilty as a matter of law. If the motion is granted, the jury will not deliberate on the case at the end of the trial. The trial is over, and the defendant is acquitted.
If the defendant presents a defense, as opposed to ending the evidentiary portion of the trial and moving to closing arguments, it will proceed as the government proceeded in its case in chief, and the government is entitled to cross examine the defense witnesses.
The decision of whether the defendant testifies in his defense is a crucial decision in a criminal jury trial. The defendant cannot be compelled to testify by the government in its presentation of evidence based on the defendant’s constitutional right against self incrimination, and the government’s burden to prove its case. However, if a defendant chooses to testify in his defense, then the defendant is subject to the same cross-examination as is any witness.
Also, the decision to testify by a defendant is solely the defendant’s decision. However, it is the defense attorney’s job to make certain that the defendant has all the information necessary to make an informed decision. The decision is so important, that the Judge, outside of the jury’s presence, questions the defendant on the record to make certain he understands his rights and the issues involved in the decision. The Judge also advises the defendant that if he does not testify, the jury will be instructed that no inference may be made by the decision not to testify, no weight may be given to the defendant’s decision not to testify in the jury’s deliberations, and, in fact, that issue may not even be discussed by the jury.
Following the presentation of the State’s case, and the defendant’s case, the attorneys for each party are given the opportunity to present closing arguments to the jury. The closing argument is the last opportunity for the parties to communicate with the jury prior to its deliberation and verdict.
The defense generally provides its closing argument, and then the party with the burden of proof, the State, presents its closing argument. However, in cases where the defense does not put on evidence, the defense may opt to present the last closing argument.
Judge’s Charge on the Law:
Following closing arguments, the Judge addresses the jury, and provides the jury with the law it needs to make a decision. The law given to the jury includes the law of the criminal statute allegedly violated, law related to constitutional rights and procedure, law of any defenses on which the defendant relied, as well as instructions relevant to the defendant’s particular case.
Following the Judge’s charge on the law, the jury retires to the jury room and begins its deliberations once the judge determines from the attorneys whether any issues need to be addressed concerning the Judge’s charge on the law.
If a verdict is reached, the jury will return a verdict of guilty or not guilty as to each and every offense alleged in the case that the jury is tasked with deciding. In South Carolina, the written verdict form is handed to the Judge to view, and then given to the clerk of court to orally publish. The jury’s verdict must be unanimous.
If a jury advises the Court that it is having difficulty reaching a unanimous verdict, the Judge will generally provide the jury with an Allen charge. An Allen charge is a specific charge on the law which basically requests that the jury continue to deliberate and reach a unanimous verdict. The Allen charge is carefully tailored to advise the jury to try harder to reach a verdict while also maintaining the right to its opinion.
When a jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict following a reasonable amount of time after the Allen charge, often referred to as a deadlocked jury, the result is a mistrial. Without a verdict, the case is in the same position as it was prior to trial. The government will subsequently make a decision whether to retry the case.
In South Carolina state court, sentencing almost always occurs directly after the verdict of guilty. As the jury in a criminal jury trial is the sole finder of the facts, the judge is the sole finder of the law. The Judge imposes a sentence on the defendant in accordance with the criminal statute that the jury found the defendant to have violated. An important observation on sentencing is that in the event of an offense requiring a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge’s discretion is removed from the decision on sentence, and the Judge simply imposes the mandatory sentence.
Attorney Kirk Truslow's practice focuses solely on criminal defense in State and Federal Courts. In practice for thirty years, Truslow has successfully defended many cases in State and Federal Court, and has served as lead counsel in many State and Federal Court jury trials. If you are being investigated or have been charged with a criminal offense, contact attorney Kirk Truslow at 843.449.3304 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.