One of the most vaguely understood events in the United States is themodern criminal trial.
Most people have a faint knowledge of the goings-onof criminal proceedings, mainly due to what is seen on television, but theperson who knows the real course of a trial is rare. However, there isnothing mysterious about the events that determine criminal guilt. Trialsare carefully orchestrated, following procedures that have been laid inlegal concrete over the years, and generally follow the same basic formatacross the United States. Criminal law is distinguishable from civil law in the aspect thatcriminal acts are officially considered to injure not only individuals, butsociety as a whole.Order now
This is the reason why criminal cases are described asstate v. offender. The state, as the injured party, is taking thedefendant to court (Schmalleger 64). The purpose of a criminal trial is todetermine if the offender is legally guilty of the crime, but this does notnecessarily mean that the person in question committed the crime.
Asopposed to factual guilt (the person ‘did it’), legal guilt merely meansthat a jury of the defendant’s peers is convinced without reasonable doubt. As can be seen, this leaves room for possible discrepancies (Schmalleger198). Before a trial can proceed, certain events must take place. Thefirst is the arraignment of the defendant, which can happen anytime betweenarrest and a logical, non-specific time before the trial itself.
Arraignment consists of the court reading to the defendant the substance ofthe charge, and calls on the subject to enter a plea within a given time(Tull 1). The defendant may consult with and be advised by an attorney on whatplea to offer the court. He may plead guilty or no contest (nolocontendere), in which case a trial does not occur and the subject goesdirectly to a sentencing hearing (Tull 1), or he may plead not guilty, andtrial preparations will proceed. In very rare cases the defendant will notenter a plea, and is said to ‘stand mute’ (Schmalleger 189). Directlyafter entering a plea of not guilty, the defendant must decide on one, ifany, of many courses of defense to follow. A plea of guilty or no contestthat is withdrawn by the defendant cannot be used as evidence against thedefendant (Tull 3).
One of the most popular defenses is the alibi defense. This courseof action holds that the defendant was at another location at the time ofthe offense, and therefore could not possibly have committed the crime. Ifan alibi is to be offered, the defendant has a court-appointed time inwhich he must declare his intentions. The attorney for the state will senda notice describing the time, date, and place of the offense, and thedefendant must refute this information. If the defendant issues notice ofalibi but then withdraws the claim, this information cannot be held againsthim later in court (Tull 5). Another popular defense is the insanity defense.
The courtdefinition holds that “a person should not be guilty if they did not knowwhat they were doing, did not know that what they were doing was wrong, orif their actions were the result of a mental disease or defect”(Schmalleger 75). This obviously covers a lot of area, which is part ofthe reason for its popularity. If the defendant plans to claim insanity,he must notify, in writing, the state’s attorney of his intentions, andalso file a copy with the court clerk. Failure to follow these guidelinesresults in the disallowance of the insanity claim. A withdrawn claim ofinsanity is not admissible as evidence against the defendant (Tull 5). There are many other defenses, divided into three categories, thatare much less common than alibi and insanity.
The first of thesecategories is designated ‘other defenses. ‘ The following are examples ofthese. ‘Temporary Insanity’ implies that the defendant was only insane atthe time of the offense, and was once a very popular defense, as thedefendant usually got off “scot-free”. However, due to recentrestrictions, it has lost its appeal.
‘Guilty but Insane,’ a defense thatis all but extinct, resulted in a stiff penalty, but mandatorypsychotherapy was included in any sentence. ‘Involuntary Drunkenness,’holding that the defendant was intoxicated against his will, is rarelyused, although it has resulted in a number of successes in court. ‘Unconsciousness’ is even more rare of a defense, and is used if thedefendant committed a crime while sleepwalking, having a seizure etc. A’Chemical Imbalance’ defense is used if the defendant’s actions wereinfluenced by the consumption of food products or stimulants, including butnot limited to sugar, nicotine, and caffeine. ‘Premenstrual StressSyndrome,’ or PMS, is a very new defense and not yet even officiallyacceptable. However, it has been successfully used in Virginia(Schmalleger 77-79).
The second group of defenses is labeled ‘special defenses. ‘ One thatis fairly commonly used is ‘Self Defense,’ holding that the defendantcommitted the crime in self-defense to avoid physical harm. ‘Duress,’ onthe other hand, is not common, and is used when the defendant claims tohave committed a crime in order to alleviate a prior wrongdoing againsthim. The ‘Entrapment’ defense has become the subject of media attention,since its implications are a bit sinister. It is implied that lawenforcement officers have created a crime solely for the purpose ofprosecuting the defendant.
In the case of an ‘Accident’ defense, theoffense is said to have been purely accidental on the part of thedefendant. ‘Mistake’ says that the defendant committed an unwitting crimedue to outside forces that precipitated the actual offense. A defense of’Necessity’ is rare, and is only used when the survival of the defendantwas at stake. It is only truly useful if no serious harm was done.
‘Provocation’ is a fairly new defense, and one that was sought after bydefense attorneys for years. Under this defense, a defendant isacknowledged to have been provoked by a tormentor to the point of lashingout. ‘Consent,’ the last defense of this group, holds that the crimecommitted was done under consent of the victim (Schmalleger 80-81). The last group of defenses is the ‘procedural defenses’ that pointfault at the court.
The first of these is ‘Double Jeopardy. ‘ This occurswhen a subject is prosecuted twice for the same offense. Although this isunacceptable under the Constitution, there is an exception to the rule. Ifa crime was committed in two jurisdictions, then two separate trials may beheld. ‘Selective Prosecution’ charges that the defendant has been singledout for prosecution due to discriminating factors. A defense of ‘Denial ofSpeedy Trial’ is usually quite effective, because a trial must be heldwithin a reasonable, given time after arrest.
If the court breaks thisrule, the defendant must be released. This rule is not applicable if trialis delayed by actions of the defense. The last defense is ‘ProsecutorialMisconduct,’ and holds that the prosecution has used bad ethical practices,such as hiding evidence or producing false testimony (Schmalleger 83-84). Another defense, the ‘Infancy Defense,’ may only be used by children. “Children below the age of seven cannot be tried for any crime, no matterhow serious. ” The age of prosecution as an adult varies, but ranges fromten to eighteen years of age (Schmalleger 74).
Disclosure is a major part of trial rights. Upon request from thedefendant, the government must disclose all evidence and testimony that isto be brought against the defendant. On the other hand, if this occurs,the defendant must disclose defense evidence to the government if requested(Tull 9). At the same time as the other trial preparations, the jury for thetrial is selected, usually from the same district as the crime wascommitted in (Simon 208), and subpoenas are sent to witnesses.
Subpoenasare issued by the clerk and state the name of the court and the proceeding. They may also command the person to produce documents or other evidence. “Failure without adequate excuse to obey a subpoena may be deemed contemptof the court” (Tull 11). Once a trial actually begins, the struggle of the prosecutingattorney against the defense attorney becomes evident (Curley and Kolanda9). The attorneys should have at least a token belief that their subjectis in the right. A criminal defense attorney may proclaim himself afighter for truth and justice, and he may be precisely that, but once acase is accepted, his only responsibility is to his client, regardless ofbelief (Zerman 9).
Even defense attorneys who are convinced that theirclient is guilty are still exhorted to offer the best possible defense andto counsel their client as effectively as possible (Schmalleger 198). Theprosecutor, too, may claim to seek truth and justice, and is probablyalready convinced he knows the truth and believes in the defendant’s guilt. However, if he finds he no longer believes the defendant is guilty, he hasa legal responsibility to stop the proceedings (Zerman 9). The first actions in court are the opening statements by bothattorneys.
The opening statements show the jury what the attorneys plan todo to prove their cases and how the proof will be offered (Schmalleger206). After the opening statements, witnesses are called, generally by theprosecution first. In most cases, witness testimony is the chief means bywhich evidence is introduced at trial. Among others, witnesses may includevictims, police officers, specialists, and the defendant, although thedefendant has the right to not testify under the 5th Amendment. “Somewitnesses may have been present during the commission of the allegedoffense, while most will have had only a later opportunity to investigatethe situation or to analyze evidence” (Schmalleger 208). Traditionally,witnesses must face the court and defendant while testifying, althoughthere have been exceptions.
Most states allow children to testify remotelyso as not to be traumatized (Schmalleger 210). There are three types of witnesses. Eyewitnesses are used more oftenby the prosecution, and claim to have been at the scene of the crime. Character witnesses tell about the character of the defendant, and may beused by both sides. Alibi witnesses are only used by the defense, and tryto convince the jury that the defendant was elsewhere at the time of theoffense (Zerman 76).
When a witness is called, he undergoes a line of questioning by thefriendly attorney. This is called “direct examination. ” When the attorneyis finished, the opposing attorney steps forth to interrogate the samewitness. This is called “cross-examination. ” Usually, cross-examination may only contest material covered during the direct examination(Schmalleger 209). The witness will have gone over the questions andanswers for both examinations with both attorneys beforehand (Schmalleger210).
Some witnesses give untrue testimony to protect the defendant. Ifdemonstrated to be false during examinations, witnesses can be impeached bythe court and charged with perjury, a crime in itself (Schmalleger 210). There are several types of testimony that are inadmissible asevidence. Hearsay evidence is described as what a witness heard fromanother person, rather than what he saw or experienced firsthand (Zerman71). Allowances, however, can be given under certain circumstances.
Oneis the dying declaration, which is a statement made by a person who isabout to die. A second instance is that of the spontaneous statement,which is made by a person in the heat of excitement without time forfabrication (Schmalleger 212). Irrelevant or immaterial evidence istestimony that goes beyond or misses the point of the question asked, andstatements of opinion show only what a witness thinks, rather than what heknows (Zerman 71). Physical evidence, if any, is brought forth during witness testimony.
There are two classes of evidence: direct and circumstantial. Directevidence, if believed, proves a fact without opinionation. It can betestimonial, which is the aforementioned witness testimony, or it can bephysical (Schmalleger 207). There are three kinds of physical evidence. Documents are anything written or typed, objects are weapons, clothing, andthe like, and copies and reproductions include photographs and recordings(Zerman 72).
Physical evidence is only subject to challenge on grounds ofauthenticity or manner in which it was obtained (Zerman 72). “Circumstantial evidence, however, requires inference and drawnconclusions. ” It is often enough to convict anyway (Schmalleger 207). After all witnesses and evidence have been shown, the attorneys giveclosing arguments, also called ‘summations. ‘ Closing arguments are directattacks on the opposing side’s weaknesses.
They provide review andanalysis of evidence. Testimony, exhibits, and inconsistencies in theopposition will be pointed out (Schmalleger 212). Many good defenseattorneys are effective showmen. They try to play on the feelings of thejurors during this crucial point of the trial. The argument is oftenemotional and poetry or verse is sometimes used. The prosecution, however,is only likely to use one emotion: outrage at the defendant (Zerman 89).
The situation during summations is favorable to the prosecution, who, inthe vast majority of instances, opens the argument (Tull 18). After arebuttal by the defense, the prosecution then has an opportunity forcounter-rebuttal. In any case, the prosecution is always given the lastword in closing arguments (Zerman 91). After summations, the judge gives his ‘charge to the jury.
‘ He callson the jury to retire and select one of their number as the foreman, anddeliberate upon the evidence that has been presented until a verdict hasbeen reached (Schmalleger 213). He also summarizes all testimony, makescomments, and gives guidance. “It is often considered the single mostimportant statement made during a trial” (Zerman 94). Once the jury leaves the courtroom for deliberations, they immediatelychoose a foreman, whose job it will be to deliver the final verdict. Thejury may deliberate for hours, days, or weeks, and may examine evidence,review testimony, analyze the judge’s charge, discuss, argue, and negotiate(Zerman 13).
Disagreements emerge early, but the majority almost alwayswins. Surprisingly, immediate unanimous decisions are not uncommon – theyaccount for about 31 percent of all verdicts (Zerman 106). Mostjurisdictions require a unanimous decision, although the United StatesSupreme Court has ruled that only capital cases must warrant a unanimousverdict. Jurors are not allowed to discuss the case with relatives, friends, oreach other until the proper time, because it is known that thinking isaffected by the influence of others. “Scientific studies have shown thatpeople instinctively and subconsciously want to be with the majority, andbecause of this, are not likely to hold out in an argument against the restof the jury.
” Duringdeliberations, if the case is important enough and the judge believes thereis risk of the jury being influenced by outside sources, he may sequesterjurors, putting them in a hotel with little contact with the outside world. Even newspapers and television may be censored. Telephone calls are shortand monitored, and windows are usually covered over so as not to let thejurors see anything that may influence their thoughts (Zerman 58). Deliberations will ultimately end in either a verdict or a ‘hungjury. ‘ In a hung jury, the members “debate, argue, plead, and finallyadmit defeat,” not being able to agree on a verdict. Hung juries areusually just replaced, but sometimes the trial is stopped, and the time andmoney involved, which is sometimes quite substantial, is wasted (Zerman101).
But a verdict is reached successfully 99 percent of the time. Thejury, led by the foreman, gives the verdict to the judge in open court(Tull 19). If the verdict is guilty, the defense attorney may choose to’poll the jury. ‘ He asks each juror his personal opinion, and in a fewcases, a juror’s doubts re-emerge to cancel the verdict.
This rarelyhappens, but if it does the result is a victory for the defense (Zerman167). A criminal trial is a complicated but closely choreographed event. Almost nothing happens without proper precedent, and even the mostfactually guilty defendant can be sure of having at least a small chance ofgetting “off the hook. ” The unbiased trial is a constitutional institutionthat may not always make sense to the average person, but that reflects thevalue of justice in American society.