What Happens During a Criminal Jury Trial?

A criminal jury trial can be a very stressful time for anyone, and many of you probably have questions about the process and what to expect. That’s why we have decided to discuss this topic and so that we can try to help you alleviate some unwanted stress from the unknown. So, without further ado, let’s learn the typical procedure in a North Carolina criminal jury trial and what you can expect. It is important to note that jury trials in state court are vastly different than federal jury trials and civil trials. 

grand jury in session, with witness called by grand jury subpoena or target letter

Jury Selection

Before your criminal trial can begin, members of a jury will have to be selected to hear your case. The jurors are selected by the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the defendant’s attorney. Everyone that is involved in the jury selection process will ask each prospective juror a general set of questions that will determine if they are allowed to be considered as a potential juror. Some of the questions that may be asked might focus on a person’s ideology or opinions about a certain ethnic group. It is also worth noting that a judge may try to determine that all possible jury members are mentally sound as well.

Each juror is asked a general set of questions to determine if they could potentially undermine the criminal trial through their biased opinions or beliefs. This process is extremely important for both the prosecution and the defense, because having one or two biased jurors can alter the entire outcome of the trial.

Jury Exclusion

Before final selection begins, both the prosecuting attorney and the defendant’s attorney both have the right to exclude a certain number of jurors from participating in the trial through a process known as a peremptory challenge.

During a peremptory challenge, both attorneys will be able to exclude certain jurors based on non-discriminatory grounds. See examples 1.1 and 1.2 for more information.

Example 1.1 

If juror “X” has been selected to partake in a domestic violence case, but was a former victim of domestic violence, then the criminal defense attorney may choose to exclude them from the criminal trial based on the grounds that he or she may already believe that the defendant is guilty. 

Example 1.2

If juror “Y” is selected to partake in a criminal drug trial, but has been convicted of trafficking drugs in the past, then the prosecution may choose to exclude this juror based on possible bias as well.

This type of jury exclusion process is done before every criminal trial in all fifty states and as you can see, it is done for good reason.

Opening Statements

After the jury is selected and a criminal trial officially begins, both sides will have a chance to give their opening statements to the jury. The prosecuting attorney will give his or her statement on behalf of the government, and the criminal defense attorney will give his or her opening statement on behalf of the defense. No physical evidence or witness testimony will be presented during this phase of the criminal trial.

This allows the jury to hear both sides of the story and get a mental picture of what may or may not have taken place.

The prosecuting attorney will always give their opening statement first and the defense may choose to give their opening statement until the prosecution has officially rests.

Witness Testimony & Cross Examination

The second stage of a criminal jury trial is commonly known as the “case in chief” and it is at this stage that the government can present evidence to the jury in order to convince them that the defendant is guilty of the crime they are being accused of.

During this stage in a criminal jury trial, four major things will happen…

  • Witnesses are sworn in and take an oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
  • The party who calls upon a witness can now question that particular witness through a process called direct examination.
  • The opposing attorney may also question that very same witness through a process called cross examination.
  • The original party who called the witness will have an opportunity to question the witness again through a process called re direct examination.

After the prosecution has concluded their “case in chief”, the defense will have the same opportunity to present their “case in chief” as well, but it isn’t uncommon for the defense to wave this right and try to build a defense by making their points during cross examination.

If the defense decides to not pursue their “case in chief” and both sides agree to rest, then the court will move on to closing arguments.

Evidence that may be Presented During Trial

The prosecution is allowed to present any type of evidence that is considered admissible in court. This may include weapons found at the scene of a crime, photographs, phone records, bank statements, text messages, video recordings, other tangible documents, and any credible witness testimony.

There is also a second type of evidence known as inadmissible evidence and this type of evidence cannot be used during a criminal jury trial. The judge and the criminal defense attorney present at the trial will usually be on the lookout for this type of evidence and they will try to make sure that it never enters the court room. Some inadmissible evidence includes:

  • Polygraph tests (Lie detectors)
  • Any testimony that is considered hearsay
  • Any physical evidence that was obtained by the government through illegal means.
  • Any evidence that is not considered relevant to the case or factors in probability.

Closing Arguments

As a criminal trial comes to a close, both the prosecution and the defense are allowed to make their final statements, also known as closing arguments. Both sides will give a summation of the case and review any evidence that may sway the jury’s opinions.

All this means is that the prosecution has one more chance to try and persuade the jury to find the defendant guilty of the crime  and the defense has one more chance to try and explain to the jury that the government has failed to provide sufficient evidence to convict his or her client of any wrongdoing.

After this phase of the criminal trial has concluded, neither side will have anymore chances to speak with the jury before they start deliberating on a verdict.

Jury Instruction

After each side has made their closing arguments, the judge will give all members of the jury a set of legal instructions that cover their responsibilities as jurors, how they can determine the verdict, and what laws pertain to the case in question.

These set of “legal instructions” given by the judge may discuss the jurors ethical obligations and oaths they took before hearing the case and it may also include state or federal sentencing guidelines for the crime or crimes that have allegedly taken place.

Jury Deliberation

After all jurors have read and understood the jury instruction handed down by the judge, they will be required to deliberate among themselves in order to try and reach a verdict. The deliberation process may last only a couple of minutes, but it could go on for up to several weeks. If the jurors cannot agree on a verdict after a substantial amount of time, then this is called a hung jury.

How a Hung Jury Can Affect Your Trial

If your criminal trial ends with a hung jury, then the case is declared a mistrial and the person accused gets to walk out of a court a free man or woman; however, the government could choose to take the defendant back to court at a later date to retry the case. If this happens, then a new set of jurors will be chosen to decide the outcome of the case.

That being said, the government could decide not to pursue the case any further and all charges could remain dropped for an indefinite amount of time.

Reaching The Verdict

The final stage in a criminal jury trial happens once the judge received the verdict from the jury foreman. The judge will then read the verdict out loud to the court, announcing if the defendant was found innocent or proven guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, his or her sentence will also be read out loud on each individual count or crime he or she has been found guilty of.

This concludes our explanation on what happens during a criminal jury trial and the team here at Polk Law wish you well.

This concludes our brief overview on what happens during a criminal jury trial and we hope this information helps you become much more informed about criminal jury trials and their processes. If you have any questions, or are in need of legal assistance, please feel free to contact us at any time.

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