The Structure of Criminal Trial in the United States

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One of the most vaguely understood events in the United States is the modern criminal trial. Most people have a faint knowledge of the goings-on of criminal proceedings, mainly due to what is seen on television, but the person who knows the real course of a trial is rare. However, there is nothing mysterious about the events that determine criminal guilt. Trials are carefully orchestrated, following procedures that have been laid in legal concrete over the years, and generally follow the same basic format across the United States.

Criminal law is distinguishable from civil law in the aspect that criminal acts are officially considered to injure not only individuals, but society as a whole. This is the reason why criminal cases are described as state v. offender. The state, as the injured party, is taking the defendant to court (Schmalleger 64). The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine if the offender is legally guilty of the crime, but this does not necessarily mean that the person in question committed the crime. As opposed to factual guilt (the person Idid itd), legal guilt merely means that a jury of the defendantis peers is convinced without reasonable doubt. As can be seen, this leaves room for possible discrepancies (Schmalleger 198).

Before a trial can proceed, certain events must take place. The first is the arraignment of the defendant, which can happen anytime between arrest and a logical, non-specific time before the trial itself. Arraignment consists of the court reading to the defendant the substance of the charge, and calls on the subject to enter a plea within a given time (Tull 1).

The defendant may consult with and be advised by an attorney on what plea to offer the court. He may plead guilty or no contest (nolo contendere), in which case a trial does not occur and the subject goes directly to a sentencing hearing (Tull 1), or he may plead not guilty, and trial preparations will proceed. In very rare cases the defendant will not enter a plea, and is said to Istand mutel (Schmalleger 189). Directly after entering a plea of not guilty, the defendant must decide on one, if any, of many courses of defense to follow. A plea of guilty or no contest that is withdrawn by the defendant cannot be used as evidence against the defendant (Tull 3).

One of the most popular defenses is the alibi defense. This course of action holds that the defendant was at another location at the time of the offense, and therefore could not possibly have committed the crime. If an alibi is to be offered, the defendant has a court-appointed time in which he must declare his intentions. The attorney for the state will send a notice describing the time, date, and place of the offense, and the defendant must refute this information. If the defendant issues notice of alibi but then withdraws the claim, this information cannot be held against him later in court (Tull 5).

Another popular defense is the insanity defense. The court definition holds that la person should not be guilty if they did not know what they were doing, did not know that what they were doing was wrong, or if their actions were the result of a mental disease or defecti (Schmalleger 75). This obviously covers a lot of area, which is part of the reason for its popularity. If the defendant plans to claim insanity, he must notify, in writing, the statels attorney of his intentions, and also file a copy with the court clerk. Failure to follow these guidelines results in the disallowance of the insanity claim. A withdrawn claim of insanity is not admissible as evidence against the defendant (Tull 5).

There are many other defenses, divided into three categories, that are much less common than alibi and insanity. The first of these categories is designated bother defenses. The following are examples of these. I Temporary Insanity implies that the defendant was only insane at the time of the offense, and was once a very popular defense, as the defendant usually got off Iscot-freel. However, due to recent restrictions, it has lost its appeal. IGuilty but Insane,i a defense that is all but extinct, resulted in a stiff penalty, but mandatory psychotherapy was included in any sentence. Olnvoluntary Drunkenness, I holding that the defendant was intoxicated against his will, is rarely used, although it has resulted in a number of successes in court. IUnconsciousnessi is even more rare of a defense, and is used if the defendant committed a crime while sleepwalking, having a seizure etc. A IChemical Imbalancel defense is used if the defendantis actions were influenced by the consumption of food products or stimulants, including but not limited to sugar, nicotine, and caffeine. OPremenstrual Stress Syndrome,1 or PMS, is a very new defense and not yet even officially acceptable. However, it has been successfully used in Virginia (Schmalleger 77-79).

The second group of defenses is labeled Ispecial defenses. One that is fairly commonly used is Self Defense, holding that the defendant committed the crime in self-defense to avoid physical harm. IDuress, I on the other hand, is not common, and is used when the defendant claims to have committed a crime in order to alleviate a prior wrongdoing against him. The IEntrapmenti defense has become the subject of media attention, since its implications are a bit sinister. It is implied that law enforcement officers have created a crime solely for the purpose of prosecuting the defendant. In the case of an IAccidenti defense, the offense is said to have been purely accidental on the part of the defendant. IMistakel says that the defendant committed an unwitting crime due to outside forces that precipitated the actual offense. A defense of INecessity is rare, and is only used when the survival of the defendant was at stake. It is only truly useful if no serious harm was done.

Provocations is a fairly new defense, and one that was sought after by defense attorneys for years. Under this defense, a defendant is acknowledged to have been provoked by a tormentor to the point of lashing out. IConsent,I the last defense of this group, holds that the crime committed was done under consent of the victim (Schmalleger 80-81).

The last group of defenses is the Oprocedural defensesl that point fault at the court. The first of these is IDouble Jeopardy. This occurs when a subject is prosecuted twice for the same offense. Although this is unacceptable under the Constitution, there is an exception to the rule. If a crime was committed in two jurisdictions, then two separate trials may be held. ISelective Prosecutionl charges that the defendant has been singled out for prosecution due to discriminating factors. A defense of IDenial of Speedy Triali is usually quite effective, because a trial must be held within a reasonable, given time after arrest. If the court breaks this rule, the defendant must be released. This rule is not applicable if trial is delayed by actions of the defense. The last defense is Prosecutorial Misconduct, and holds that the prosecution has used bad ethical practices, such as hiding evidence or producing false testimony (Schmalleger 83-84).

Another defense, the Ilnfancy Defense, I may only be used by children. IChildren below the age of seven cannot be tried for any crime, no matter how serious. The age of prosecution as an adult varies, but ranges from ten to eighteen years of age (Schmalleger 74).

Disclosure is a major part of trial rights. Upon request from the defendant, the government must disclose all evidence and testimony that is to be brought against the defendant. On the other hand, if this occurs, the defendant must disclose defense evidence to the government if requested (Tull 9).

At the same time as the other trial preparations, the jury for the trial is selected, usually from the same district as the crime was committed in (Simon 208), and subpoenas are sent to witnesses. Subpoenas are issued by the clerk and state the name of the court and the proceeding. They may also command the person to produce documents or other evidence. OFailure without adequate excuse to obey a subpoena may be deemed contempt of the courti (Tull 11).

Once a trial actually begins, the struggle of the prosecuting attorney against the defense attorney becomes evident (Curley and Kolanda 9). The attorneys should have at least a token belief that their subject is in the right. A criminal defense attorney may proclaim himself a fighter for truth and justice, and he may be precisely that, but once a case is accepted, his only responsibility is to his client, regardless of belief (Zerman 9). Even defense attorneys who are convinced that their client is guilty are still exhorted to offer the best possible defense and to counsel their client as effectively as possible (Schmalleger 198). The prosecutor, too, may claim to seek truth and justice, and is probably already convinced he knows the truth and believes in the defendantis guilt. However, if he finds he no longer believes the defendant is guilty, he has a legal responsibility to stop the proceedings (Zerman

The first actions in court are the opening statements by both attorneys. The opening statements show the jury what the attorneys plan to do to prove their cases and how the proof will be offered (Schmalleger 206). After the opening statements, witnesses are called, generally by the prosecution first. In most cases, witness testimony is the chief means by which evidence is introduced at trial. Among others, witnesses may include victims, police officers, specialists, and the defendant, although the defendant has the right to not testify under the 5th Amendment. ISome witnesses may have been present during the commission of the alleged offense, while most will have had only a later opportunity to investigate the situation or to analyze evidencel (Schmalleger 208). Traditionally, witnesses must face the court and defendant while testifying, although there have been exceptions. Most states allow children to testify remotely so as not to be traumatized (Schmalleger 210)

There are three types of witnesses. Eyewitnesses are used more often by the prosecution, and claim to have been at the scene of the crime. Character witnesses tell about the character of the defendant, and may be used by both sides. Alibi witnesses are only used by the defense, and try to convince the jury that the defendant was elsewhere at the time of the offense (Zerman 76).

When a witness is called, he undergoes a line of questioning by the friendly attorney. This is called Idirect examination. When the attorney is finished, the opposing attorney steps forth to interrogate the same witness. This is called Icross-examination.. Usually, cross examination may only contest material covered during the direct examination (Schmalleger 209). The witness will have gone over the questions and answers for both examinations with both attorneys beforehand (Schmalleger 210).

Some witnesses give untrue testimony to protect the defendant. If demonstrated to be false during examinations, witnesses can be impeached by the court and charged with perjury, a crime in itself (Schmalleger 210).

There are several types of testimony that are inadmissible as evidence. Hearsay evidence is described as what a witness heard from another person, rather than what he saw or experienced firsthand (Zerman 71). Allowances, however, can be given under certain circumstances. One is the dying declaration, which is a statement made by a person who is about to die. A second instance is that of the spontaneous statement, which is made by a person in the heat of excitement without time for fabrication (Schmalleger 212). Irrelevant or immaterial evidence is testimony that goes beyond or misses the point of the question asked, and statements of opinion show only what a witness thinks, rather than what he knows (Zerman 71).

Physical evidence, if any, is brought forth during witness testimony. There are two classes of evidence: direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence, if believed, proves a fact without opinionation. It can be testimonial, which is the aforementioned witness testimony, or it can be physical (Schmalleger 207). There are three kinds of physical evidence. Documents are anything written or typed, objects are weapons, clothing, and the like, and copies and reproductions include photographs and recordings (Zerman 72). Physical evidence is only subject to challenge on grounds of authenticity or manner in which it was obtained (Zerman 72). Circumstantial evidence, however, requires inference and drawn conclusions. It is often enough to convict anyway (Schmalleger 207).

After all witnesses and evidence have been shown, the attorneys give closing arguments, also called Isummations. Closing arguments are direct attacks on the opposing sidels weaknesses. They provide review and analysis of evidence. Testimony, exhibits, and inconsistencies in the opposition will be pointed out (Schmalleger 212). Many good defense attorneys are effective showmen. They try to play on the feelings of the jurors during this crucial point of the trial. The argument is often emotional and poetry or verse is sometimes used. The prosecution, however, is only likely to use one emotion: outrage at the defendant (Zerman 89). The situation during summations is favorable to the prosecution, who, in the vast majority of instances, opens the argument (Tull 18). After a rebuttal by the defense, the prosecution then has an opportunity for counter-rebuttal. In any case, the prosecution is always given the last word in closing arguments (Zerman 91).

After summations, the judge gives his Icharge to the jury. He calls on the jury to retire and select one of their number as the foreman, and deliberate upon the evidence that has been presented until a verdict has been reached (Schmalleger 213). He also summarizes all testimony, makes comments, and gives guidance. Dit is often considered the single most important statement made during a triali (Zerman 94).

Once the jury leaves the courtroom for deliberations, they immediately choose a foreman, whose job it will be to deliver the final verdict. The jury may deliberate for hours, days, or weeks, and may examine evidence, review testimony, analyze the judgels charge, discuss, argue, and negotiate (Zerman 13). Disagreements emerge early, but the majority almost always wins. Surprisingly, immediate unanimous decisions are not uncommon I they account for about 31 percent of all verdicts (Zerman 106). Most jurisdictions require a unanimous decision, although the United States Supreme Court has ruled that only capital cases must warrant a unanimous verdict.

Jurors are not allowed to discuss the case with relatives, friends, or each other until the proper time, because it is known that thinking is affected by the influence of others. IScientific studies have shown that people instinctively and subconsciously want to be with the majority, and because of this, are not likely to hold out in an argument against the rest of the jury. During deliberations, if the case is important enough and the judge believes there is risk of the jury being influenced by outside sources, he may sequester jurors, putting them in a hotel with little contact with the outside world. Even newspapers and television may be censored. Telephone calls are short and monitored, and windows are usually covered over so as not to let the jurors see anything that may influence their thoughts (Zerman 58).

Deliberations will ultimately end in either a verdict or a Ihung jury. In a hung jury, the members Idebate, argue, plead, and finally admit defeat,l not being able to agree on a verdict. Hung juries are usually just replaced, but sometimes the trial is stopped, and the time and money involved, which is sometimes quite substantial, is wasted (Zerman 101). But a verdict is reached successfully 99 percent of the time. The jury, led by the foreman, gives the verdict to the judge in open court (Tull 19). If the verdict is guilty, the defense attorney may choose to Ipoll the jury. He asks each juror his personal opinion, and in a few cases, a juroris doubts re-emerge to cancel the verdict. This rarely happens, but if it does the result is a victory for the defense (Zerman 167).

A criminal trial is a complicated but closely choreographed event. Almost nothing happens without proper precedent, and even the most factually guilty defendant can be sure of having at least a small chance of getting Doff the hook.] The unbiased trial is a constitutional institution that may not always make sense to the average person, but that reflects the value of justice in American society.

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The Structure of Criminal Trial in the United States. (2022, Feb 05). Retrieved December 9, 2023 , from

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