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What Happens at a Criminal Trial ?

Posted by Robert E. Heyman | Jun 30, 2010 | 0 Comments

In 28 years of practicing criminal law, I have handled over 125 jury trials as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney. In those roles, I have learned that one of the most important misconceptions I have had to dispel is that almost nothing of what is depicted in film or television courtroom dramas is even close to reality.

There are rarely any “surprise” witnesses presented, and I have never witnessed a spectator stand up in the rear of the courtroom and dramatically confess their guilt. That observation has in the past made me want to start a new career as a technical advisor to these shows, but then I realize that, for better or for worse, a true “reality” courtroom show would be rather boring, at least for the casual observer.

All cases start with Jury selection, during which the attorneys for the State and the Defense are able to question the prospective jurors as to their personal backgrounds, their prior experiences with the criminal justice system ( as defendants, victims or witnesses) and, as much as possible inquire as to any biases they might have for one side of the case or the other.     

Any candid attorney will admit that it is basically impossible to learn everything about a prospective juror in the short time allowed to make a perfectly formed opinion about a particular juror. Often times the best that can be accomplished is to weed out the jurors who are obviously biased or can be expected to be a “hard sell” when the time comes to decide in my client's favor.

Following jury selection, both sides are able to present an “Opening Statement” which outlines the respective positions of the parties. I firmly believe that the majority of cases are won or lost in Opening Statements.. This is the first real opportunity for the jurors to hear a logical explanation of the case from each side. There is nothing more powerful than a clearly stated view of the case which draws from the evidence that the jury will hear during the trial. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a juror nod in agreement when evidence is presented in the trial which I told them would later come out to support our position in the case.

Since in all criminal cases the prosecution has the burden of proof, they present testimony and evidence first, followed by the defense. A critical portion of the presentation of evidence can occur during cross-examination, which has been described by numerous legal scholars as the “locomotive on the train which seeks the truth”.

At the close of all the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense, both sides are given the opportunity to present closing arguments to the jury. To any experienced trial attorney, this is the best part of the trial. During closings, each attorney must draw upon the testimony and evidence and apply it to the applicable law to persuade the jury that their theory of the case should prevail.

Following the reading of the applicable law which the jurors must follow in reaching their verdict, the jurors are sequestered in jury room to deliberate. To the trial attorney, this is the worst part of the trial, for there is nothing more to be said, no more evidence to be presented until the jury alerts the court that they have reached a verdict. In Florida, unlike the dramatic scenes on television, the court clerk reads the verdict form, at which time the judge must examine the verdict for any flaws or inconsistencies. If none exist, the defendant is adjudicated either guilty or not guilty.
Trial by jury is one of the fundamental constitutional rights we enjoy as Americans. We at the Heyman Law Firm have both the knowledge and experience to assert that right on your behalf.

About the Author

Robert E. Heyman

Bio Robert E. Heyman was born in Providence, RI, and grew up in Barrington, RI. He graduated from Barrington High School in 1974, and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Following high school graduation, Mr. Heyman attended Northfield-Mt. Hermon Academy in Northfield, MA and thereafter attended co...

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