Criminal cases are very similar to civil cases, except instead of a plaintiff, there is a prosecuting attorney. The prosecuting attorney may represent either the Commonwealth (the state) or a city, county, or town.
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In any trial, two kinds of questions will have to be decided at various times. These are questions of law and questions of fact. The judge decides the questions of law. You decide the questions of fact.
After you have decided the questions of fact, you will apply the law to the facts as directed by the judge at the end of the trial.
Questions of law involve the determination of what the law is. They may be about procedural matters (what information can be admitted as evidence, what kind of questions can be asked, which witnesses can appear, and what they can testify about), or they may involve questions of substantive law, which create, define, and regulate the rights of parties.
Quite simply, it's deciding what really happened in a case. Don't be surprised if the evidence given by both sides is conflicting or if the testimony given by one witness contradicts another.
After all, if everyone was in agreement about what happened and what should be done about it, the dispute probably wouldn't be in court, and a jury probably wouldn't be needed. Your job is to listen to all the testimony, consider all the evidence, and decide what you think really happened.
A number of people will be in the courtroom besides the judge, the jury, and the attorneys. Visit the Courtroom Expectations page which explains who they are and what they'll be doing.
After the clerk or bailiff has sworn in the jury, the case is ready to begin. Both attorneys may make opening statements explaining their client's position and outlining the evidence they expect to present that will support their claims. These statements are not evidence and should not be considered as such.
The witnesses for the plaintiff are then called and questioned by the attorney for the plaintiff and cross-examined by the attorney for the defendant. After cross examination, the plaintiff's attorney may reexamine some of the witnesses. After all the plaintiff's witnesses have been called and all the plaintiff's evidence has been presented, the attorney will tell the judge that the plaintiff rests.
Witnesses for the defendant may then be called. This time, the defendant's attorney questions the witnesses, and the plaintiff's attorney cross-examines them. When all the defendant's witnesses and evidence have been presented, the defense will rest. After the defendant has finished, the plaintiff has the right to offer testimony in reply.
The judge and the attorneys will then go to the judge's chambers to consider the instructions the judge will give the jurors about the law of the case. After the judge has decided on the instructions, the judge and the attorneys return to the courtroom. The judge reads the jury instructions to the jury, then the attorneys make their closing arguments.
The closing arguments let each attorney tell the jury what they think the evidence proves and why their client should win. These closing arguments may help jurors recall many details of the case, but they are not evidence. The plaintiff's attorney speaks first, followed by the defendant's attorney. Finally, the plaintiff's attorney speaks again and closes the case.
Jury instructions tell the jury what the laws are that govern a particular case. Each attorney gives the judge a set of proposed jury instructions.
The judge considers each instruction and gives the ones that properly state the law that applies to the case. The jurors must accept and follow the law as instructed by the judge even though they may have a different idea about what the law is or ought to be.
In a civil case, the jury not only decides on a verdict for one side or the other, but also awards damages. That is, if the jury determines that an award of money should be made, the jury decides how much money should be paid.
There are two kinds of criminal offenses: felonies and misdemeanors.
A felony offense is one that can be punished by death or by a prison sentence of a year or more. If the felony offense is one that can be punished by death, it is called a capital offense. If the maximum punishment allowed by law is less than one year in confinement or only a fine, the offense is called a misdemeanor.
In felony or serious misdemeanor criminal cases, the jury first decides the defendant's guilt or innocence and then, in a separate proceeding, the same jury decides on the penalty. In lesser misdemeanor criminal cases, the jury sets the punishment at the same time that they decide their verdict.
An important part of an attorney's job is to protect the clients' rights during a trial. This includes making sure that the only evidence presented during the trial is evidence that is proper, relevant, and allowed by law. So if evidence is submitted that the attorney feels is improper, or if the attorney feels that the other side is asking questions that are unlawful, the attorney will call out "Objection!"
By doing this, the attorney is asking the judge to rule on whether the law allows that particular piece of evidence or statement or question to be admitted. If the judge thinks it should be admitted, the judge will say, "Objection overruled." If the judge agrees that the evidence in question is improper, the judge will say, "Objection sustained."
How often an attorney raises objections during the trial shouldn't bias you against that attorney's case.
The judge may decide to send the jury from the courtroom in the middle of a trial. While the jury is gone, the attorneys and the judge will discuss points of law or whether certain evidence can be admitted.
The purpose of these discussions is to make sure that the jury hears only the evidence that is legally valid before making its decision. You will be called back to the courtroom when the judge's decision is made.
You must disregard that testimony. Sometimes the jury hears testimony that the judge later decides they should not have heard.
The judge will tell the jury to consider the case as if they had never heard it. You must follow the judge's instructions if the parties in the case are to receive a fair trial.
No. As long as the trial is still going on, do not discuss the trial with anyone. Do not even discuss the case with your fellow jurors until you begin your deliberations.
When the trial is over, you can discuss it with anyone if you want to, or you may keep silent if you prefer.
No, not as long as the trial is still going on.
If you accidentally hear something about the trial outside the courtroom, or if someone contacts you about the trial while it is still going on, or if you realize during the trial that you have some special information that relates to the case ask the bailiff to tell the judge immediately what has happened. Tell no one about the incident except the bailiff or the judge.
Jurors are given lunch breaks and may be given other breaks during a trial. If it is absolutely necessary that you take a break for some reason at any other time during the trial, tell the bailiff or the judge. But note that these requests are highly unusual and should be made only if absolutely necessary.