While there are some differences between civil and criminal trials, the basic procedure is the same.
The judge presides in the courtroom. He or she is in charge.
- If a case is tried before a jury, the judge rules on points of law and gives instructions to the jury, informing the jury about the law that governs the case. (The jury determines the faces based on the evidence presented.)
- If there is no jury, the judge determines the facts and decides the verdict – finding of guilty or not guilty in a criminal case, or a finding for or against the plaintiff in a civil trial.
The trial usually begins with opening statements by each side to tell the judge or jurors something about the case they will be hearing. The opening statements must be confined to the facts that will be proved by the evidence.
- The party that brought the case to court – the government in a criminal prosecution or the plaintiff in a civil case – goes first.
- The defendant goes second.
The heart of the trial is the presentation of evidence. Evidence may be people (witnesses) or things (physical exhibits). Again, the plaintiff goes first and the defendant goes second. At the end of the defendant’s case, the government or plaintiff can present new witnesses or exhibits to refute evidence presented by the defendant.
- Direct evidence usually is that which speaks for itself: eyewitness accounts, a confession, or a weapon.
- Circumstantial evidence usually is that which suggests a fact by implication or inference: the appearance of the scene of a crime, for example, testimony that suggests a connection or link with a crime, or physical evidence that suggests criminal activity.
NOTE: Strict rules govern the kinds of evidence that may be admitted into a trial, and the presentation of evidence is governed by formal rules.
Closing arguments by each side discuss the evidence and point out to the judge or jury the facts favorable to the side making the presentation.
If there is a jury, the judge will instruct it about the relevant laws that should guide its deliberations. He or she will state the issues in the case, and discuss the standard of proof that the jurors should apply to the case.
The decision by the jury is called the “verdict.” Possible verdicts in criminal cases are “guilty” or “not guilty.” In a civil case, the jury will “find for the plaintiff” or “find for the defendant.”
- If the jury finds the defendant “guilty” in a criminal case, the judge will set a date for sentencing. Before that time, a pre-sentence investigation will take place to help the judge determine the appropriate sentence from the range of possible sentences set out in the statues.
- If the jury "finds for the plaintiff" in a civil case, it will also usually set out the amount of money the defendant should pay the plaintiff for damages, often after a separate hearing concerning damages.
- The jury will also make a decision on any counterclaims that may have been part of the case.
After the decision is read and accepted by the court, the jury is dismissed, and the trial is over.
However, the decision of the jury does not take effect until the judge enters a judgment on the decision – that is, an order that it be filed in public records.
- In a criminal case, the judge generally has no authority to modify the verdict. Usually he or she must accept it or reject it.
- In a civil suit, the judge may have the authority to increase or decrease the amount of damages awarded by the jury, or to make some other modifications before entering the judgment.
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