To most people, a criminal trial is as easy as both parties’ lawyers calling witnesses to the stand and questioning them, and presenting evidence to the court while the jury looks on. After a few days of repeating this process, the jury will study the answers and evidence presented and will hand out their judgment on the case. The common belief for the uninitiated is that the trial process only requires a few days or, at worst, a few weeks to complete.
On the contrary, trials are not so simple that they can be completed in only a matter of days, unless the case is minor, both parties agree to an out-of-court settlement, or the defendant provides a guilty plea. Severe offenses and felonies often merit longer trials, and in many cases both the prosecution and the defense will conduct legal tactics that can further prolong the process. Listed below are the key highlights of the trial process as they are conducted in the courts of Las Vegas.
Choosing the Trial Path
Right before a case goes to trial, the defendant is provided with the chance to choose between a trial by a judge and a trial by a jury. In practice, all defendants can choose to go to a trial via judge, or what is referred to officially as a bench trial. The judge will be the sole person who will hear and review all the evidence presented by both sides, and will be the one to decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence. However, this type of trial is available only to defendants facing less than six months in jail.
The more common trial seen in court is the jury trial, where a group of random qualified individuals called jurors will listen to all testimonies, examine all the evidence, convene on the post-trial and eventually decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Going for a jury trial will eventually prompt the court to proceed with the jury selection, where a pool of potential jurors are questioned to rate their qualification for jury service. Both lawyers can make objections to the selection of a juror, a move called peremptory challenging, when they feel the juror can have unfair bias toward either side. For the purpose of expediency, the following sections will focus on the more common jury trial procedure.
Into the Trial
As a matter of protocol, the trial begins with both parties providing their opening statements, where their arguments towards the defendant’s guilt or innocence are put into focus. The defense has all the leeway to refuse providing an opening statement if they believe that this will strengthen their case. In most cases, however, the defense opts to provide their opening statement when it is the beginning of the defense’s case.
The meat of the trial lies in the prosecution and the defense’s case. The prosecution goes first, conducting direct examinations of their witnesses and providing evidence relevant to their arguments, followed by a cross-examination conducted by the defense. After the prosecution rests, the defense has the option to enter a motion for dismissal if they believe the prosecution’s case was insufficient. The same procedure is conducted during the defense’s case, with the prosecution getting a chance to enter rebuttals after the defense rests. Note that, depending on the scope of the case and the number of allowed witnesses for it, the testimonies can be conducted over a period of several weeks or months at worst.
Once all the relevant testimonies have been heard and cross-examined and all the important evidence have either been entered into the court records, both parties will proceed to their closing arguments, where both lawyers will reiterate why they should hand a conviction or an acquittal. Afterwards, the judge will summon both counsels to confer with them over jury instructions that will determine how the jury will determine their judgment. These instructions usually include what reference laws to apply to the case, as well as any other additional directives relevant to the situation.
After these discussions, the jury will enter a period of deliberation during which they will decide the merits of all the evidence and testimony and weigh them against the supposed guilt or innocence of the defendant. The deliberation period is often conducted over a pre-set period, where the verdict must be reached or a hung jury will be declared. A hung jury is a situation where the jury cannot determine guilt or innocence, and can thus require a re-trial or a call for further deliberation from the dissenting jurors.
The trial process is intricate and can drag on for a long period thanks to all the legal maneuvering and certain unforeseen issues like the aforementioned hung jury. However long the trial process may go, the results will rely on the competency and dedication of the lawyers representing the parties.