Stages of a Criminal Trial

What are the basic stages of a criminal trial in California?

Pre-Trial Motions

First – before the case even gets to trial, there may be motions run that can dramatically change the evidence, charges and even possibly get the entire case dismissed.

  • 995 Motion – if the case is a felony, a motion to challenge the charges and evidence presented at the preliminary hearing can be filed.  If the reviewing court finds that there was not enough evidence to hold you for trial, then individual counts, sentencing allegations and potentially the entire case can be dismissed.
  • Suppression motions – there can be motions to suppress evidence based on an illegal search.  One can be filed and heard during the preliminary hearing in a felony or at any time before trial in a misdemeanor.  If the judge rules that the evidence was unlawfully obtained, it gets excluded.  Depending on the case, the suppression of evidence can entirely destroy the DA’s case against you.  For example, in a drug possession case, if the drugs were seized by the police illegally and excluded, how in the world can they prove you had drugs if they can’t use them against you?

Those motions can be heard by any judge and will determine certain legal issues even before the trial date.

In limine motions

Aside from the motions above, there are some rulings that can only be decided by the judge who is hearing the trail.  These are known as in limine motions (Latin for “at the threshold”). Every case is unique, but typical motions include putting limitations on how evidence is presented, excluding irrelevant or unduly prejudicial evidence, etc.   These in limine motions set the framework for how the trial will be conducted.  From there, jury selection.

Jury selection

In any criminal case, you have a right to a court or a jury trial.  There are some instances where it’s advantageous to have a court (or “bench”) trial with just the judge deciding guilt or innocence, but most cases are jury trials.  Juries must be made up of 12 jurors selected from the jury pool assembled that day.  In a misdemeanor or a non-life sentence felony, both the DA and defense can excuse a juror without having to state a reason.  Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling, something ab0ut their background or life experience that makes them not the right juror for this particular case.

During jury selection, the judge typically begins with their introductory information and screens out the jurors that can’t hear the case for whatever reason.  From there, both attorneys get to question the jurors in the voir dire process.  It is designed to allow both sides to directly question prospective jurors about their backgrounds, bias or other perceptions about the case.   The attorneys are looking for jurors that can be challenged for “cause” meaning that they cannot be an impartial juror on the case for whatever reason.  (For example, in a robbery case if a potential juror was a bank teller who was recently robbed at gunpoint, they’re probably not going to be right for this case and would be excused.)  Once both sides have passed for cause (meaning they agree that the jurors up there can hear the case), then the exclusion process begins.  Each side can excuse jurors one at at time, alternating back and forth until either both sides agree on the jury or they use up all their challenges.  The jury is then sworn in.  The judge may pick one or more alternate jurors to ensure a full jury should one not be able to continue.

Opening Statements

After the jury is sworn in, the prosecution has an opportunity to give an opening statement.  It is not an argument and they cannot argue the law.  It’s commonly referred to as a “roadmap” or an overview of the case so the jurors will kind of know something about what the evidence is expected to show before the evidence begins.   The defense gets a similar opportunity to present an opening statement.  We can give it right after the prosecution’s or reserve it and give it at the beginning of the defense case.

Presentation of evidence

The prosecution has the burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt, so obviously they must present evidence to try and do that.  Every witness must be sworn in and subject to cross examination by the defense.  Any objects (diagrams, photos, etc.) must be legally introduced following the rules of evidence.   Once the DA has put on their case, they rest.

The Defense Case

First, the defense is under no obligation to put on any evidence whatsoever.  You are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  “Not proven” is the same as “not guilty.”  Before even putting on any case, the defense can make a motion to have the entire case (or individual charges) dismissed based on a failure of proof on the DA’s part.  If any part of the case survives that motion, the defense can then put on their case.

The defense can call witnesses, introduce evidence in the same way as the prosecution.  The defense witnesses are also subject to cross examination by the prosecution.

The defendant testifying

Under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, you have a right to be free from self-incrimination.  You cannot be compelled to be a witness, but you can testify if you choose.  If you decide not to testify, the jury cannot use the fact that you didn’t testify against you.  The DA cannot comment on your decision not to testify in any way in their closing argument.

Closing Arguments

After all the evidence has been presented and both sides have rested their case, each side can give a closing argument.  Unlike the opening statement, the attorneys are now free to truly argue and try to persuade what they think the evidence has shown.  We argue why the evidence does (or more importantly does not) prove the charges.  We can argue the law, whether or not the witnesses were credible – or even outright liars.

The prosecution gives their closing argument first, then the defense gives theirs.  Because they have the burden of proof, the DA then gets a rebuttal argument.  They get two arguments, the defense gets one.

Jury Instructions

Before being presented to the jurors, both attorneys can request certain instructions, even writing specialized instructions for that one particular case.  The judge rules on what instructions will be given, then they instruct the jury on the law that applies to the case.   The instructions are read to the jury and supplied in writing.

Jury Deliberations

Finally, the case is submitted to the jury for their deliberations.  I have had cases where the verdict has come in 10 minutes and some where it’s taken 3 weeks.  There are no time limits or regulations put on their deliberations as long as they’re working toward a verdict or decision.  The jury can ask for read back of testimony, clarification on the instructions or anything else they need to assist them.

Every trial is truly unique.  Even for the same charge, each case has its own twists and subtle issues.  Every witness is subject to being challenged in what they say, what they saw and with contradicting evidence.

It takes 12 unanimous votes to convict.  Similarly, it takes 12 unanimous votes to acquit.  Anything between is a hung jury and a mistrial which also means you’re not convicted.

To discuss your case further, give me a call or send an email.

Joe Dane

info@joedane.com

(714) 532-3600

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