The judicial process is a long and complex one, often spanning months of complex deliberation. Each step is carefully created to ensure the most thorough, fair and complete examination of a civil or criminal case, and to cover all possible issues and concerns. In this paper, we will go through the complete judicial process step by step to gain a better understanding of how a civil or criminal case goes to court.
After an arrest is made and an arraignment leads to trial, the jury must then be selected. The selection of a jury is a careful and thorough process, ensuring that a trial gets twelve people sitting on it who are unrelated to the case, impartial to it, and have the presence of mind to offer the most sincere, decisive verdict regarding the case. (ABA, 2011)
Once the trial begins and the jury is sworn in, the prosecution has a chance to make their opening statement. (Bergman et al., p. 231) In it, the prosecuting attorney makes their best case for the defendant’s guilt, which they must then prove over the course of the trial. After that, the defendant makes their opening statement wherein they make their best case for their client’s innocence. (ABA, 2011)
Presentation of Evidence
The evidence of the case is then presented to the jury. Evidence can be either direct or circumstantial – direct evidence absolutely ties a defendant to a crime, such as a murder weapon; circumstantial evidence merely supports the theory that the defendant may have done it, including alibis and suggested criminal evidence. (ABA, 2011)
Direct Examination of Witnesses
Once the evidence has been presented, witnesses are brought to the stand. These are people who have testimony that can support either the defendant’s guilt or innocence, including actual witnesses of the crime, friends and family of the defendant, or police officers on the scene. The side that called the witness provides direct examination, wherein they ask questions of the witness to present their testimony. (ABA, 2011)
Cross-Examination of Witnesses
After the witness has been directly examined, the opposing side has the opportunity to cross-examine. (Neubauer et al., p. 386) In this step, the other side is given the chance to discredit the witness’ testimony, or cast reasonable doubt on what they are saying. It is an opening to clarify statements made during direct examination, or get the witness impeached. (ABA, 2011)
After the defense has made their case, the prosecution has the chance to provide rebuttal in the form of additional witnesses or evidence. This is intended to refute some of the defendant’s own evidence or witnesses, as well as introduce new evidence that the defense then cannot refute. (ABA, 2011)
Once all the evidence and witnesses have been presented in a case, the defense and prosecution both rest, and the closing statements are given. In them, the prosecution provides a summation of the evidence and witnesses that have been seen by the jury, and makes their case once more for the defendant’s guilt. The defense then gives their opening statement, answering questions offered in the prosecution’s closing statement and providing the jury with the final information they must consider when deciding their verdict. Once they do, the prosecution is also invited for a rebuttal of the defense’s closing statement, addressing statements made within that. (ABA, 2011)
Instruction to the Jury
After the closing statements, the judge then relays to the jury exactly what laws should be considered when deliberating. This is to establish that a verdict is not made that violates already established law. The judge establishes the standard of proof that must be used, and they reiterate that the evidence and the witnesses should be the sole base of their determinations, not the opening or closing statements or any outside facts or speculation on the case. (ABA, 2011)
Call for Mistrial
At any point before the verdict, the prosecution or defense can call for a mistrial. A mistrial indicates that the judicial process has been handled inadequately, and a fair verdict cannot be reached as a result of those actions, including improper jury selection, juror misconduct, and any speculation or untoward behavior on the part of the prosecution that unfairly provides prejudice to the defendant. If the judge grants the motion, it will be declared a mistrial and a new trial will be established. (ABA, 2011)
When the jury deliberates, a foreman is established among the twelve jurors. They moderate discussion among the rest of the jury, who are sequestered for the period of deliberations, which can last from hours to weeks. The evidence is weighed and the witnesses discussed, eventually coming to a unanimous verdict as to the defendant’s guilt or innocence. In the event that the jury becomes deadlocked (the jurors simply cannot come to a decision), it results in a hung jury, which calls for a mistrial. (ABA, 2011)
Once the jury has come to a decision, the parties involved will then reconvene in the courtroom, where the foreman will read out the decision. The verdict can only be read as “guilty or not guilty,” and it is the final decision of the case as to the outcome. (ABA, 2011)
Motions After Verdict
Following the verdict, motions can be made be either the prosecutor or defender. Criminal cases allow for a motion in arrest of judgment, which appeals to the judge for not enforcing the verdict, due to the insufficiently presented information. Motions for new trials can also be put forth, but only are accepted if the judge had made mistakes during the trial. (ABA, 2011)
Once the verdict has been reached, the judge will proceed with sentencing – this can occur at the same time as the verdict, or it can be done in a separate hearing. The defendant can offer their opinion on sentencing in order to better inform them of their wishes. (County of Napa, 2011)
Bergman, P., & Barrett, S. J. (2007). Represent yourself in court how to prepare & try a winning case (6th ed.). Berkeley: Nolo.
County of Napa - District Attorney - The Steps Of A Court Case . (n.d.). County of Napa . Retrieved April 29, 2011, from http://www.countyofnapa.org/Pages/DepartmentContent.aspx?id=4294968334
How Courts Work. (2001). American Bar Association. Retrieved April 29, 2011, from http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/cases.html
Neubauer, D. W., & Meinhold, S. S. (2004). Judicial process: law, courts, and politics in the United States (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson.