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Criminal Trial Process : An Overview

  1.  The government brings charges either by:
    1. accusing a suspect directly in a “bill of information” or other similadocument, or
    2. by bringing evidence before a grand jury which determines validity of the caseshould. Upon validation, the accused is indicted.
  2.  The case is then brought before a petit jury or is tried by a judge if the defense requests it. The jury is selected from a pool by the prosecution and defense. The prosecution bears the burden of proof and must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged.
  3.  The prosecution presents its case first, and may call witnesses and present other evidence against the defendant, then rests.
  4. The defense may move to dismiss the case if there is insufficient evidence or present its case and call witnesses. All witnesses may be cross-examined by the opposing side. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that the defendant is not required to testify, but if he waives that right and does testify, he must answer the prosecution’s questions. Upon completion of rebuttals and the presentation, the defense rests.
  5.  Each side makes closing arguments.
  6.  Then the judge gives the jury legal instructions and the jury then adjourns to deliberate in private. The jury must unanimously agree on a verdict of guilty or not guilty in criminal cases.
  7. If a defendant is found guilty, usually a separate hearing is set to declare sentencing. The sentence is usually determined by the judge based on information provided by the prosecution, defense, and court. However, in capital cases, a jury may determine whether to recommend that the death penalty should be imposed. Again, the burden is on the prosecution to prove its case, and the defendant is entitled to take the stand in his or her own defense, and may call witnesses and present evidence.
  8. After sentencing, the defendant may appeal the ruling to a higher court. U.S. appellate courts only examine the record of the proceedings in the lower court to determine if errors were made that require a new trial, resentencing, or a complete discharge of the defendant. The prosecution may not appeal after an acquittal, although it may appeal under limited circumstances before verdict is rendered, and may also appeal from the sentence itself.