Criminal Trials

Criminal Trials in the United States

The Rights of Defendants

Much of the world’s image of U.S. criminal trials is created by Hollywood television dramas — from Perry Mason, who rarely if ever failed to win acquittal for his clients, to L.A. Law. These shows do not necessarily accurately reflect the basic structure of a U.S courtroom in a criminal trial. In reality, criminal trials in the U.S. are rarely as dramatic as film portrayals, and are often more ponderous and deliberate.

The judge is the manager of the trial and the final arbiter of the applicable law. The jury decides whether the prosecution has presented enough evidence to convict the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution and the defense team present their case, under the rules of procedure, in an adversary system. What is often amazing to overseas observers is the array of rights that surround a criminal defendant once he or she is accused of a crime. This is known in the United States as “due process of law.” Those rights include:

  • Prosecution only after a preliminary judicial procedure that finds probable cause based on credible evidence presented by the prosecution.
  • Right to be brought into open court, where the charges are read to the defendant, who must then enter a guilty or not guilty plea.
  • Right to counsel except in trials for minor offenses. This includes the right to a court-appointed lawyer at government expense if the defendant cannot afford one. The defendant also has the right to require the attendance of witnesses and to confront them — through his lawyer — at trial.
  • Entitlement to a trial in open court by a jury of one’s peers — in other words, fellow citizens. In the United States, verdicts in criminal trials require a unanimous jury verdict in most jurisdictions and, unlike in other countries with jury systems, both the prosecution and the defense have a limited right to strike jurors they believe will not be fair.
  • Only one trial for the same offense. This is the celebrated protection against double jeopardy that protects defendants from over-zealous prosecutors determined to eventually find a jury that will convict.
  • Right against self-incrimination. In the United States, a defendant cannot be compelled to testify against himself, a right O.J. Simpson, for example, invoked in his criminal trial. If a defendant chooses to testify, however, he must answer questions from the prosecution as well as the defense.
  • Competence to stand trial. A defendant must be mentally competent to understand the offenses of which he is charged.
  • A speedy trial. The Constitution guarantees a speedy trial by an impartial jury in the jurisdiction where the offense was committed. The trial may, however, also be moved to another jurisdiction if it is felt that an impartial jury cannot be found.
  • Pretrial Proceedings. A defendant has the right to adequate time to prepare a defense and can waive his right to a speedy trial. He also has the right to obtain any evidence in the possession of the prosecution that might prove his innocence. In addition, he has the right to interview witnesses before trial. (1)

The Course of a Criminal Trial

A criminal trial begins with opening statements — first by the prosecution and then by the defense. The prosecution then presents its evidence and witnesses, who are subject to cross- examination by the defense. The court — in essence, the judge – – can dismiss the case at this stage if he believes the evidence does not prove the defendant committed the crime.

The defense then has the opportunity to present its evidence and witnesses. After the defense case has been presented, the prosecution may present rebuttal evidence. As in a civil trial, the judge supervises the proceedings and rules on disputes about admissibility of evidence. The trial ends with closing statements by both sides and deliberation by the jury, following instructions by the judge.

The jury must find the defendant guilty or not guilty on each charge. A verdict of not guilty terminates the proceedings and the defendant is freed. In the case of a defendant who is found guilty or who has pled guilty, obviating the need for a trial, the sentencing phase begins, except in death penalty cases, where the jury is required to decide between death and a lesser penalty.

The sentencing process includes a pre-sentencing investigation and the filing of a report on all matters germane to the defendant’s sentence. The defendant can review and comment on that report. The defendant also has the right to counsel at his sentencing hearing. The court then enters an order, specifying the punishment imposed on the defendant and how that punishment is to be carried out. The judge imposes the sentence subject to any sentencing guidelines that may have been prescribed by law.

Significantly, all defendants in criminal trials have the right to appeal to a higher court, including in some cases, up to the U.S. Supreme Court. A trial verdict can be overturned if errors of law have occurred, or a defendant’s rights have been violated. The appeals process is an integral part of the U.S. judicial system. Many defendants have had their sentences overturned or reduced by appeals courts.

One of the most famous examples of the overturning of a sentence on appeal is the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard who, in 1954, was convicted of murdering his wife. Sheppard’s initial appeals, including one that went to the Supreme Court, were rejected. But in 1966, the Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ruled that Sheppard was entitled to a new trial. Later that year, he was acquitted by a new jury. Sheppard’s case was big news at the time and became even more famous when it became the basis for The Fugitive, a long-running, 1960s television show. But many less famous defendants have won new trials, or had verdicts overturned as a result of the appeals process. (2)

Criminal Trials and Due Process of Law

Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the United States: Criminal Trials and Due Process of Law

Thousands of Supreme Court rulings have been concerned with the rights of persons accused of crimes. Defendants in state as well as federal criminal cases are assured that they cannot be imprisoned for an offense unless represented by a lawyer, or counsel; if a defendant is impoverished, such counsel must be supplied by the government. Defendants must be warned that they may not be questioned until counsel is provided, and defendants may not be convicted on the basis of confessions obtained by coercion. The Court also ruled that prosecutors may not exclude people from juries on grounds of race or sex.

The Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination was the most controversial constitutional protection during the 1950s and 1960s, when it was invoked by, among others, individuals accused of subversive activities and participation in organized crime. The Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment has also generated controversy; its provisions protecting the security of the person and of dwellings have been cited in disallowing convictions based on evidence obtained by the police illegally. The Court in the 1970s began to narrow its interpretation, a process that has continued into the 21st century as the public has come to favor crime-control measures over the rights of defendants. This climate of opinion has also led to more frequent use of capital punishment, although the Court has limited the crimes for which death may be the punishment. The Court has also prescribed procedures that must be followed before the death penalty may be given. At the same time, it has limited the right of prisoners to appeal their convictions on constitutional grounds. (3)

In this Section about Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Religious Freedom, Freedom of Speech, Press and Assembly, Criminal Trials and Due Process of Law, War on Terror, Privacy, Minority Rights Civil Rights for Blacks, Affirmative Action, Civil Rights for Hispanics and Asian Americans, Rights of Women and Minorities. For an overview of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the world, read here.

Criminal Trials Involving Password-Protected Evidence

This section examines the Criminal Trials Involving Password-Protected Evidence subject in its related phase of trial. In some cases, other key elements related to trials, such as personal injury, business, and criminal litigation, are also addressed.


Following are crucial skills necessary for preparation and excution of a defendant’s trial strategy.

  • Theory of the Case
  • Voir Dire
  • Opening Statements
  • Direct Examination
  • Cross-Examination
  • Rebuttal Examination
  • Closing Statements

As one of the Trial tools, see Common Objections at Trial below.

Common Objections at Trial

In an adversarial system, the defense lawyer is in charge of producing oral or written objections to evidence that the prosecutor shows or offers at trial.

Some Objections to Questions may be (note that this list is not comprehesive):

  • Irrelevant – A proper question must make a consequential fact more or less probable; otherwise, it is irrelevant.
  • Immaterial – A proper question must result in an answer which logically bears on a relevant issue, otherwise, it is immaterial
  • Best Evidence Rule – The Best Evidence Rule states that, when physical evidence is available, a witness’s testimony is an inadequate replacement for that testimony. If original documents are lost or destroyed, through no fault of the party proferring the witness, then the witness’s testimony may be an admissible substitute.
  • Privilege – A defense lawyer may object if a question would violate one of the common law or codified testimonial privileges: attorney-client privilege, doctor-patient privilege, journalists’ privilege, marital communications privilege, etc.
  • Conclusion – A defense lawyer should object if the question calls for a conclusory answer.
    Improper Opinion – As a general rule, only experts may offer certain opinions in court. Non-experts, called lay persons, may testify as to opinion if it is rationally based on the perception of the witness and if the opinion would be helpful to a clear understanding of the witness’ testimony or the determination of a fact in issue. Lay witnesses may be permitted to express opinions on a variety of topics (identify of individuals, feelings, etc.)
  • Hearsay – In most common law courts a witness may not offer a “statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” See Hearsay in this legal encyclopedia for more information on this objection.
  • Leading – In certain U.S. jurisdictions, an attorney is prohibited from asking leading questions during direct examination. This rule is intended to prevent the attorney from putting words in the witness’s mouth.
  • Repetive – Sometimes also known as “Asked and Answered”, this objection should be used when an attorney attempts to ask the same question a second time.
  • Beyond the scope – In certain jurisdictions, cross-examination is limited to the scope of the direct examination. If an attorney asks a question during cross-examination that is beyond the scope of the direct examination, the attorney should object to the question.
  • Assumes facts not in evidence – In certain instances, a lawyer may ask a question that assumes a fact not yet in evidence. Under those circumstances, the attorney should object until the fact has been established.


Notes and References

  1. E. Osborne Ayscue, Jr., USIS, Issues of Democracy, September 1999
  2. Id.
  3. Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Criminal Trials: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Criminal Trials. This part provides references, in relation to Criminal Trials, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Criminal Trials by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Criminal Trials and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Criminal Trials or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Criminal Trials and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Criminal Trials. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Criminal Trials should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Criminal Trials when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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