When the criminal suspect enters a plea of not guilty, the criminal suspect must stand trial. The only way to avoid trial is by either changing the plea to guilty prior to trial, or by having the case dismissed. The trial can be either a jury trial or a bench trial, where there is no jury and it is up to the judge to determine whether the criminal suspect is innocent or guilty. This decision can be of major import in a criminal case. It is theoretically sound to conclude that having or not having a jury trial can change the verdict in the case. Often, a jury would convict a criminal defendant where a judge would not, and vice versa. The criminal defense lawyer can be a major resource for determining whether the defendant should opt for a jury trial or a bench trial. The attorney generally has more experience and a more sophisticated seasoned feel for whether a jury would be beneficial to the outcome of the case. If the criminal suspect opts for a jury trial, the courtroom will contain six or more people from the surrounding community to serve as jurors. The jurors will determine at the close of the evidence whether the criminal suspect is guilty or not guilty. The judge still presides over the proceeding, but he or she does not make the decision of whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the criminal suspect opts for a bench trial, there is no jury, and the judge is the final arbiter of whether the criminal suspect is guilty or not guilty. In a jury trial, the criminal defense attorney and the State Attorney must question a pool of prospective jurors and challenge, or attempt to remove, the jurors they feel would not vote in their favor at the end of the trial. This stage of trial is known as jury selection, and the act of questioning the jurors is known as voir dire. The goal in the criminal justice system is to foster juries of impartiality and objectivity. The jury is supposed to decide the case based on the law, not based on their personal feelings, opinions, or bias. In practice, it is difficult to find a truly impartial jury. The attorneys are not necessarily searching for impartial jurors. Each side tends to search for the jurors that they strongly believe will rule in their favor at the end of the criminal proceeding. The criminal defense attorney and the criminal suspect must decide whether the criminal suspect is going to testify at the trial. The defendant is not required to testify, but sometimes it can be advantageous, especially where the testimony will help to humanize and familiarize the defendant in the jury’s eyes. A criminal defendant is not required to testify under the United States Constitution. Once the jury selection is complete, the criminal trial must begin. Both the State Attorney and the Defense make opening statements before the jury. In the opening statement, the lawyer will speak directly to the jury, telling the jury the basic facts of the case, what the evidence will show, and how the jury must interpret the evidence to bring fairness and justice to the court. The lawyer is not allowed to argue before the jury in this opening statement, although he or she may present the speech to the jury in favor of his or her side. Once both opening statements are complete, the prosecutor presents his or her evidence to the jury through the use of witnesses and exhibits of physical evidence, documents, and demonstrative aids. After each of the prosecutor’s witnesses testifies, the criminal defense attorney may cross examine the witness to challenge his or her testimony’s accuracy, veracity, or credibility. If the State Attorney fails to present evidence, either through a lack of witnesses or missing physical evidence, the judge may dismiss the case. After the prosecutor finishes presenting evidence, the defense attorney may move for a directed verdict, with which he or she attempts to end the case by getting the judge to dismiss it for the prosecutor’s failure to submit enough evidence to prove the charges. If there is no material question of fact, then the judge must determine that the defendant is entitled to a dismissal as a matter of law. If this motion is not successful, then the defense puts on any evidence that it has. The defense does not have to put on any evidence if it so elects, because the defense does not need to prove anything. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor. If the prosecutor cannot prove guilt of the criminal defendant to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, then the criminal defendant is to be found not guilty. Once the defense finishes presenting its evidence, the attorneys present summations, also known as closing arguments. During these speeches to the jury, the attorneys are free to argue the case and comment on the evidence. The attorneys may not give their personal opinions or comment on the veracity of a witness or reliability of evidence, but they may draw logical inferences for the jury. Once the closing arguments are complete, the judge instructs the jury on the law and on the burden of proof in a criminal case. All exhibits that were admitted into evidence are handed to the jury, and the jury retreats to a deliberation room, where they take time amongst themselves to discuss how they will find in the case. When finished deliberating, the jury-selected jury foreperson hands the bailiff the verdict form, and the judge reads it to the defendant. The jury’s verdict must be unanimous. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision, then the judge will likely declare a mistrial, and the case will be scheduled for a retrial at a later date. If the defendant is convicted, he or she has an appeal as a matter of right, where he or she may appeal the conviction to the appellate court. An appeal is not a retrial or a do-over. It is a different legal proceeding where the attorney goes before a panel of judges to attempt to convince them that there was an error of law or mishap at the trial level requiring reversal of the conviction. Appeals are expensive to litigate and most do not end with a reversal of conviction. If the defendant loses the appeal, he or she can petition to have the case presented to a second appellate court, but the criminal defendant is not entitled to a second appeal. Often, the second appellate court is the Florida Supreme Court. When a criminal suspect’s case is set for trial, it is not guaranteed that the trial will actually take place on that day. Several cases are scheduled for the same day at the same time. As a result, several cases may occur before a particular criminal suspect’s case is called. It is not uncommon that a criminal defendant will be commanded to appear in court on several consecutive days without having his or her case even called to trial on those days. This occurs because other criminal cases may take priority, such as cases where the defendant is being held in jail or where the other cases are older in time and have been continued. Despite the tenuous docket schedule, the criminal defendant must nevertheless appear in court until his or her case is called, or unless an attorney in the case receives a continuance or postponement from the judge.
The information on this page does not represent legal advice. Because the law is continually changing, some of the provisions contained herein may be out of date. It is always wise to seek counsel from an experienced Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer like Kenneth Hassett.