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What Is a Criminal Trial and What Phases It Has

Posted on in CrimeMay 21, 2024

A  criminal trial  is the determination of innocence or guilt when a person is charged with a crime. They are set up as the government versus an accused individual. Cases are the government’s opportunity to place evidence forward to obtain guilty verdicts. Both the prosecution and the defense are given a chance to make their case before the judge issues a determination. The defense also often has the right to choose if a judge or a jury will try their case. However, in some jurisdictions, both the defense and the prosecution have a right to demand a trial by jury. Criminal cases follow set phases which all should understand. 

Stages of Criminal Trial

A criminal trial is like a puzzle where we put together all the pieces to find out what really happened. It's a big deal because it helps make sure the right decisions are made and everyone gets treated fairly. There are different steps in a criminal trial, and each one plays a special role in getting to the truth. So, let's break it down and see how it all comes together: 

Criminal Trial


The prosecution has to file formal charges against the person or group to begin the process of a  criminal case. Depending on the case, the prosecutor may have to appear before the judge and present evidence proving probable cause for an investigation. If it is a  felony offense, they may have to get an indictment from a grand jury. For defendants already in police custody, prosecutors should have a hearing within 48 hours of their arrest. Should the prosecution not issue charges on the defendant after detainment within this period, it could be grounds for their unconditional release. 

Jury Selection 

States and counties have lists of citizens who can be selected for jury duty. These are compiled from voter registries,the Department of Motor Vehicles, and phone books. The list of names  is randomly drawn, and the juror gets a court-ordered summon via mail to serve on the jury. If a juror absconds their call to serve, the judge can give a bench  warrant for their arrest. Exemptions from jury service include being a minor, conviction of a disqualifying felony, and nonresidency of the county: mental instability or requests to be excused. Once a sample pool is drawn, “voir dire'' begins. The judge and both sides question the jury members to assess their backgrounds, as well as, core beliefs. The goal is to create a jury team that is devoid of bias and would give the defendant the best chance at an objective criminal trial.This process underscores the adversarial nature of the legal system, where the  plaintiff vs defendant  dynamic ensures that both sides have the opportunity to present their case for impartial consideration by the jury.


Once the jury is selected and formal charges have been placed, the courts will hold a hearing for the defendant to notify them of the charges. The defendant will also have a chance to make their plea known. If they plead guilty, the judge will decide on the next course of action, which may be an exemplary, community service, or prison sentence, depending on the offense. If they plead not guilty, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt the defendant committed the offense. During this time, the courts can order the defendant to avoid contact with alleged victims. Considering the defendant often has not had the chance to prepare a defense and may not be able to hire a lawyer, some plead not guilty even if they later change their position to ‘guilty.’ 

Pre-trial Hearings

Courts might have multiple pre-trial hearings to schedule and give the progress of any services imposed on the defendant. Judges can have hearings to assess the progress of plea debates, and parties might want to address things related to witnesses or evidence during the  pre-trial phase. During plea agreements, the courts might have a hearing to consider the defendant's plea as well. 

Pre-trial motions

A defendant can opt to file different motions during the stage before the trial, such as motions to dismiss the charges. They may also file motions to suppress evidence or limit testimonies. The courts may then decide to consider them before the start of the trial. 

Readiness Hearing 

A  criminal court  might have a readiness or omnibus hearing weeks to days before the trial date. This hearing aims to address or resolve pre-trial motions, reviewing discovery, and addressing pre-trial issues. 

Opening Statements

The prosecution and the defense are called upon to make opening statements before the courts. The statements include an outline of the case. This is the first opportunity for the lawyer to address the jury as well. Typically, the party with the burden of proof begins with the opening statements. So, the prosecution is given the first opportunity, followed by the defense. 

Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination 

Following the opening statements, the consecutive step of the criminal trial is for each side to present their “case-in-chief.” The prosecution is trying to prove the criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. The cases will entail evidence presented by each side. Witnesses and experts may be brought in along with photos or videos. The witnesses may also provide direct testimony where parties calling them ask specific queries on the defendant or the particular contexts of the case. Witnesses are also cross-examined by the other side to refute the testimony provided. The goal here is to deny their credibility or reduce their statement's effect on the jury. 

When the prosecution witnesses have been questioned, cross-examined, and, if need be, re-examined by the prosecution, the defense counsel is given a chance to present their case to the courts. In criminal trials, the accused is typically said to be innocent before being proven guilty, and the witnesses might not be allowed to give evidence. The defense has only to show that there is a potential for doubt to be cast on the prosecution case. 

Closing Arguments

In the same way, the trial may be allowed opening statements for each side to begin their arguments, both the defense and prosecution are allowed to provide their closing debates. The prosecution and defense summarize their main arguments, reiterating the strongest points. The review is crafted to reflect what it means to the overall case. 

Instruction to the Jury 

Following the close of evidence, the judge explains the law that applies to the case. Judges may use jury instructions that lawyers draft to try and explain the regulations in a way that is easily digestible by non-legally trained citizens. After getting instructions from the judge, the final part of the criminal trial is for jurors to consider the case via deliberation. In this case, they might retire to another room to review each side and then come up with a unanimous verdict. Most criminal trials need the unanimity of the jury to present a verdict. If one cannot be reached, it becomes a ‘hung jury.’ The case may be dismissed or restarted from the jury selection phase. 

instruction to the jury


When the jury reaches a guilty verdict, it falls upon the judge to issue the sentencing to the convicted person by the state's laws. State law also establishes guidelines that consider different factors during sentencing. That includes whether it was a first-time offense or the category of a felony. Defendants might also have sentencing requests and provide evidence at the final sentencing hearing. 

Though they are not obligated to do so, the defendant could testify so they are shown leniency. Judges might also consider other factors when determining sentences, such as the character of the defendant. If the defense had numerous character witnesses attesting to their good nature or that the incident may have been unintentional, it creates a precedent where the judge is inclined to be lenient. Similarly, if the defendant has not shown remorse, the judge might decide to issue the maximum sentence.

Before imposing the sentence for the conviction, the judge typically asks the defendant to stand. They address the defendant and provide their remarks concerning the case and what they have observed about the defendant's attitude. They will also express opinions on the defendant concerning the case itself. Mitigating factors affecting the sentence to be imposed will also be revealed if present. At this point, the judge will give the sentence for the convicted offense. If there is more than one sentence, the judge will explain whether they are concurrent or consecutive. 

Defendants have the ability, though, to appeal the conviction. Sometimes, they might be allowed to remain free on a bond pending the appeal. In cases where the defendant has pled guilty, and no bond is allowed, they can be taken into custody immediately after sentencing. They will remain in custody before being transferred to the facility to serve their sentence. In cases where the defendant is sentenced to probation, the judge can impose conditions to be followed. For example, they might be instructed to stay at home or maintain distance from schools or specific locations. The period of probation is also determined during the sentencing hearing. Defendants are always encouraged to retain the services of an experiencedattorney before being tried in court. This would go a long way to helping prove innocence or reduce sentences.

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