So You’re Set for Jury Trial

Of all of the things that television gets wrong about the justice system both inside and outside the courtroom, the aspect of our justice system mostly frequently and inaccurately portrayed is the jury trial.

No, attorneys do not get to testify on behalf of their clients (sorry Matlock) and no, evidence and specific testimony does not come in without foundational questions being answered (sorry Law and Order).

The first thing to understand before you decide what sort of trial you want to have is what your options are for trial. A jury trial allows for jurors (men and women brought in from the community to hear the facts of your case) to hear the evidence and arguments in your case, and determine whether the Government has or has not proven that an accused is guilty of a specific criminal offense. Alternatively, someone charged with a crime can waive their right to a jury trial and ask that the matter be heard by the judge assigned to the case. This is called a bench trial.

If you (and your attorney) decide to proceed to jury trial this article will (briefly) describe most of the steps involved along the way. Please understand that this is not a review of all of the work an attorney will put in prior to trial.

Motions in Limine

Motions in Limine are pre-trial motions that are designed to highlight for the judge specific evidentiary or legal issues one of the attorneys anticipate might be a problem at trial. This is often the case if there is a very sensitive piece of evidence or evidence that, arguably, has reliability issues. Motions in Limine are particularly important for jury trials because they give judges time to contemplate the applicable facts and law, time the judge is not going to have when twelve citizens are sitting in a jury box.

Voir Dire

After pre-trial motions have been argued, prospective jurors will be called into your courtroom. Judges often times (but not always) review with jurors information that has been provided on a juror questionnaire. This usually includes whether the person has previously served as a juror, whether they currently have a case pending, and whether they have friends and/or family who work in law enforcement or the legal system. After the judge asks these and other questions they believe are appropriate, the judge will review what are called in Illinois the Zehr principals. These are:

  1. That the defendant is presumed innocent of the charge(s) against him or her;
  2. That before a defendant can be convicted the State must prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt;
  3. That the defendant is not required to offer any evidence on his or her own behalf; and
  4. That if a defendant does not testify it cannot be held against him or her; however, no inquiry of a prospective juror shall be made into the defendant’s decision not to testify when the defendant objects.

The attorneys will then get to ask questions. The Government proceeds first. Counsel for the accused then asks questions of the jury. Some judges allow for an open-ended dialogue between the attorneys and the prospective jurors. Other judges keep voir dire extremely brief. The significance of this portion of the trial is extremely underappreciated by many in the legal community. In a lot of ways, this portion of the trial is where the attorneys are picking twelve new judges (as to the facts) on the spot for your case. It is important to know people who wield such power as well as possible.

Opening Arguments

Opening arguments are designed to let the jury know what you reasonably believe the evidence will show. Normally opening arguments are kept fairly simple by veteran trial attorneys for a number of reasons. You do not want to promise or predict something will be presented as evidence if it is not, you do not want to present the case as a completed matter at that time, and your counsel will likely want to keep a significant fact or two out of argument for the sake of asking the jury to focus on what they hear at a specific point or, alternatively, so it can be brought up as a matter of consequence in closing argument.

The Trial Itself

Both sides will then present their case to the jury. The Government goes first because they hold the obligation to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant then proceeds but is under no obligation to present any evidence on their behalf. After the Government has rested, almost always, certain motions will be made by defense counsel.

Jury Instruction Conference

After both sides have presented their case, the jury will be excused while the attorneys review and argue about the instructions that will go back to the jury. These instructions are almost always based on what are called the Illinois Pattern Instructions. The vast majority of them will be agreed upon by the attorneys. Inevitably, there will be a few or more instructions where the parties disagree. Normally this is because of the exclusion or inclusion of specific sentences of paragraphs. Sometimes, an attorney will have an instruction they want the jury to receive that is outside of the Pattern Instructions. Those are normally scrutinized far more than a pattern instruction and receive far greater pushback from opposing counsel and the bench.

Closing Arguments

Each side then gets to make closing arguments. The Government gets to make two arguments. First, they make an initial closing argument. Then the Government yields the floor for defense counsel to make an argument. After that, the Government speaks again in what is called rebuttal closing argument. The basis for this is the evidentiary burden the Government carries in each and every criminal case…to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. These are almost always appreciably longer than opening statements because each attorney gets to argue what the evidence showed and what reasonable inferences can be made from that evidence. Exhibits that came into evidence at trial are frequently displayed to the jury in conjunction with argument.

Jury Deliberations

For a period of time, the jury will then deliberate and discuss the evidence, exhibits, and instructions of the case. Often times, the jury will have questions for the court to answer. The judge will speak with the attorneys on the record to discuss the appropriate answer and provide that answer to the jury. In America, in criminal cases, the verdict of a jury must be unanimous. After the jury has reached a verdict, the parties are notified. The jury and the litigants then return to the courtroom. Almost always, the jury foreperson will forward the verdicts to the bailiff, who forwards them to the judge. Either the judge or the clerk will then read the verdicts in open court, on the record.

I hope this article has given you the opportunity to become more familiar with the jury trial process. This process involves appreciably more than what we see on television or in the movies and involves a considerable amount of time for properly prepared counsel. If you or someone you love is in need of an attorney for a criminal or traffic matter, please call Myzia Law at 815-345-4808.