Jury trials are a crucial part of the criminal justice system in the United States. They work as a check on the power of the government when it comes to punishing individuals accused of a crime. The specific details of a jury trial can differ from state to state. In Florida, a jury trial can be broken down into eight parts:
- Pretrial Motions
- Jury Selection
- Opening Statements
- Prosecution Case-in-Chief
- Defense Case-in-Chief
- Prosecution Rebuttal Case
- Closing Arguments
- Jury Instructions, Deliberation, and Verdict
This article is intended to give a simplified explanation of each part of a jury trial so you can have a basic understanding of what to expect if you have a case that proceeds to trial.
In many jury trials there will be pretrial motions filed by both the prosecution and defense. These pretrial motions are typically requesting that the judge assigned to the case make a ruling regarding what evidence will be permitted or excluded from the trial with the overall goal of making the trial more efficient. These motions can cover witness testimony, documentary evidence, or even request special instructions be given to the jury.
Jury selection is the process by which the parties narrow down the pool of potential jurors to the six or twelves jurors that will actually hear and decide the case. In Florida, criminal trials are decided by a jury of six people, with the exception of capital cases (cases where the death penalty is on the line) which are decided by a jury of twelve people. The term jury selection is somewhat misleading because it gives the impression that attorneys pick which jurors they want on the jury as if they were drafting players for a sports team. In actuality, attorneys are only able to ask the court to disqualify a person from sitting as a juror on the case. The goal of jury selection is to identify the feelings that people have and make sure they can be “fair and impartial” when considering the evidence at trial, as well as follow the law as explained to them by the judge. During jury selection the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney, are given the opportunity to ask the potential jurors questions to determine if they can be fair and impartial. If, based on the questions asked and answers given, there is reasonable doubt as to whether or not a potential juror can be fair and impartial when considering the case, the court is required to strike that juror. Depending on the case, the panel of potential jurors will be anywhere from twenty to a couple hundred potential jurors that are then narrowed down to the six or twelve needed. Sometimes a jury will be selected and the trial will begin immediately after. Sometimes a jury will be selected early in the week and the trial will begin later in the week.
Once the jury has been selected and sworn in, the case proceeds to opening statements. The prosecution gives their opening statement first, followed by the defense. Opening statements give the attorneys an opportunity to let the jurors know what the case is about and what evidence they expect to be presented that will support their side of the case. They are restrictions on what attorneys are allowed to say during opening statements, and the other side may object if they feel the attorney giving the opening statement has said something inappropriate.
After opening statements, the trial proceeds to the prosecution case-in-chief. This is the portion of the case where the prosecution attempts to satisfy its burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt through the presentation of evidence. Evidence can include witness testimony, physical evidence, documents, video evidence, and audio evidence. Witness testimony is presented through what is called direct examination, during which the prosecutor asks questions of the witness in order to provide testimonial evidence to the jury. Once the prosecutor has finished their direct examination, the defense is permitted to cross examine the witness. During cross examination the defense attempts to attack the credibility of the witness and his/her testimony, as well as attempt to elicit favorable evidence.
In a criminal case the defense is not required to put on any evidence. However, sometimes a defense attorney will have found favorable evidence to use in defense of their client, or the person accused may wish to testify in their defense. These are both accomplished during the defense case-in-chief. The same rules apply to the defense case-in-chief as to the prosecution case-in-chief.
Prosecution Rebuttal Case
If the defense decides to put on evidence during the defense case-in-chief, the prosecution is given the opportunity to put on a rebuttal case. However, the evidence presented in the prosecution rebuttal case-in-chief must be limited to evidence that contradicts or rebuts evidence presented by the defense. The prosecution cannot present additional evidence that goes beyond what was discussed during the defense case-in-chief. If the defense does not put on any evidence during their case-in-chief then the prosecution is not given a rebuttal case-in-chief.
Closing arguments give both the prosecution and the defense to opportunity to argue to the jury what they feel the evidence has shown in the case, and advocate for either a guilty or not guilty verdict. Like opening statements, there are rules on what attorneys can and cannot say during closing arguments, but those rules are less strict than during opening statements. The prosecution gives their closing argument first, followed by the defense, and then the prosecution is given a rebuttal argument if they wish to do so.
Jury Instructions, Deliberation, and Verdict
Once both sides have finished with their closing arguments the judge will read the jury their jury instructions. These instructions will include the elements of the criminal charge that needed to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, guidelines on how to evaluate the evidence presented, and rules on what jurors can and cannot do while they are deliberating. Once the instructions have been read the jury is given a copy, as well as a verdict form, and they are escorted to the jury room for deliberation. Any verdict in a criminal case must be unanimous, which means all the jurors must vote for the same verdict. There is no time limit on jury deliberation. Some verdicts are decided in minutes. Others take hours. Once the jurors have come to a decision they are brought back into the courtroom and the clerk in the courtroom will read the verdict aloud from the verdict form. If the jurors cannot come to a unanimous decision it is called a hung jury and the court must declare a mistrial. This means the case restarts and another trial must be held.
If the verdict is not guilty the accused is free to go (assuming there are no other pending charges). If the verdict is guilty the case proceeds to sentencing. In misdemeanor cases this will almost always happen immediately following the verdict. In felony cases there is the possibility of a pre-sentencing investigation where the Department of Corrections reviews the case and the person convicted and makes a sentencing recommendation to the judge.
That is simple breakdown of the jury trial process in the State of Florida. The attorneys at Warren Law Firm, PLLC are experienced trial attorneys, having participated in mock trial programs at the undergraduate and law school levels, and having handled dozens of trials for both the defense and prosecution. We are prepared to give you a detailed explanation of the trial process and zealously defend your case in front of a jury.