Jury Trial Analysis
Guaranteed by the Sixth and Seventh Amendments of the United States Constitution as well as every state constitution, the right to a jury trial is an important aspect of the American criminal justice system. These trials follow a familiar pattern and give rise to several opportunities to evoke Constitutional rights.
Before a trial can begin, a fair and impartial jury of one’s peers must be selected. Potential jurors are selected from a pool of candidates gathered through voter registrations and driver’s license renewal lists with the goal of getting a representative cross-section of society. These potentials are then assigned to a certain courtroom where they will be weeded out by attorneys from both sides of the argument as well as the judge. A challenge for cause allows an attorney for either side to strike any potential juror from the list based on prejudices or partialities as long as the judge concurs that such a prejudice exists. Each attorney is also permitted peremptory challenges that allow them to remove a potential juror for any reason other than race, ethnicity, or gender (Zalman, 2008). Established by Batson v. Kentucky, peremptory challenges cannot be used to stack the jury in favor of a predetermined outcome.
Once the jury has been determined, the trial can proceed with the opening statements. During this time, the attorneys for both the prosecution and defense present the main points of the case as they see them. This gives the jury the opportunity to assess the merits of each argument as well as each lawyer. While great efforts are made to avoid prejudicial jurors, no one is without these judgments. With this in mind, it can be illustrated that the impression of the lawyer on the jury can have a large effect on the outcome of the case.
The next step involves the case-in-chief and cross examination. It is important to note that the defendant has the right to be present during these aspects of the hearing and that trials may be held in public, with the notion of public trials being the byproduct of kangaroo courts in which verdicts were made without the defendant being present or able to defend themselves. Further, the defendant has the right to confront those who would bear witness against him or her. Considering this, the prosecutor begins by attempting to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is important to establish probable cause of guilt, and the prosecutor may directly examine witnesses called to strengthen their case. The defense does its best to discredit these witnesses in order to create a reasonable doubt and benefits from the presumption of innocence. If probable cause of guilt or prima facie case of guilt has not been established, the defense can seek to dismiss the case. However, more likely than not, this will be denied (Zalman, 2008). The defense attorney then has the opportunity to call witnesses on behalf of the defendant as the defendant has the right to subpoena witnesses to speak to the character of the defendant; this is the right to compulsory process. These witnesses are cross-examined by the prosecutor in a mirror of the previous act. After cross-examination, the lead attorney is allowed to ask questions to clarify and issues that may have arisen on cross-examination. Occasionally the defendant will take the stand, however this is not necessary. The right to protect oneself from self-incrimination can be evoked.
Once the case-in-chief and cross-examination are concluded, the trial proceeds to closing statements and jury instructions. At this point, both the defense and prosecutorial attorneys attempt to weave a logical and convincing story of the events that occurred. The defense addresses the jury first with the goal of creating a tale that is sympathetic to the defendant and highlights those areas where reasonable doubt can be established. The closing statements of the prosecution will be designed to sway the jury towards a guilty conviction. Once this has concluded, the judge will then address the jury. He or she will inform them of the charges, evidence that can be considered, and possible verdicts.
At this point, the jury enters into deliberation before presenting a verdict. Deliberation can take a matter of hour, days, or possibly months before decisions can be reached. This is due in part to the necessity of deciding a verdict on each individual charge. Occasionally a jury may be unable to reach a decision. In these cases, it is considered a hung jury and the case may be retried. Otherwise, decisions must be unanimous or supermajority vote depending on state law (Zalman, 2008). Eventually, a verdict is presented and the defendant is either released a free person or subject to sentencing. The defense can then file post-verdict motions to dismiss or retry the case.
The steps in a jury trial allow for several opportunities for both society and the defendant to exercise Constitutional rights. The uniform pattern allows for its continuous importance in the American criminal justice system.
Zalman, M. (2008). Criminal procedure: Constitution and society (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.