The Four Phases of Criminal Trial

After a defendant has been formally charged with a crime, the criminal process proceeds to the criminal trial phase unless the defendant pleads guilty. There are typically four stages of a criminal trial: pretrial motions; trial; sentencing; and appeal.

What Are Pre-Trial Motions?

A motion is a document that is filed with the court requesting that the court do something, such as exclude an item of evidence or dismiss the criminal charges against the defendant without a trial. Pretrial motions are exactly as the name implies – – motions brought before the trial begins. Usually, the judge sets a date for the hearing of pretrial motions at the arraignment so the lawyers know the timeframe within which they must prepare and submit their motions.

Pretrial motions are intended to allow the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney to appear before a criminal court judge and argue their respective motions. For example, the defense might seek to suppress or exclude certain evidence that tends to show the defendant’s guilt on the grounds that it was illegally seized by law enforcement. The prosecution would oppose a motion to suppress evidence. In some instances, the case may be entirely dismissed through a pretrial motion. These motions can also shorten a trial. Some of the most common types of criminal pretrial motions request the court to take the following actions:

Exclude specific items of evidence;

Change the venue of the trial;

Qualify or prevent certain witnesses from testifying;

Exclude a defendant’s confession or statement;

Compel the opposing party to release evidence;

Dismiss the case altogether.

What Happens in a Criminal Trial?

In a criminal trial, the trier of fact determines whether the defendant is guilty, or innocent of the criminal offense charged. The “trier of fact” is a jury or the judge if the defendant decides to waive trial by jury. Defendants sometimes ask to have the case decided by a judge and not a jury if they think the case is one in which bias or emotion might play a strong role, and they want a judge to make the decision about guilt or innocence. On the other hand, a defendant may be counseled to proceed with a jury as opposed to a judge, as the saying goes, “You can hang a jury, but you can’t hang a judge.”

The prosecution has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty of criminal conduct. The standard of proof that is used in criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” meaning there should be no reasonable doubt in the judge’s or jurors’ minds that the defendant committed a crime.

A criminal trial has the following phases:

Jury Selection: A pool of potential jurors is gathered from registered voters within the geographic jurisdiction of the court. Attorneys for the prosecution and the defense ask them questions designed to reveal their suitability to serve on the jury for the particular case. The prosecution and defense each have the right to exclude a certain number of people from the jury.

Opening Statements: Each side presents an overview of the case from their perspective. The prosecution generally goes first, followed by the defense.

Witness Testimony: Each side calls witnesses and asks them questions about the case and/or the defendant. The prosecution calls their witnesses, who can then be cross-examined by the defense. The defense then calls their witnesses, who can be cross-examined by the prosecution.

Closing Arguments: The prosecution and the defense make a brief statement summarizing their side of the case. These are also known as “summations.”

Jury Instruction: The judge explains to the jurors the crime that the defendant was charged with, as well as the legal standard that they must apply when determining whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of committing that crime.

Verdict: The jury considers the evidence that was presented, then applies the proper legal standard and decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In most states, a criminal verdict must come from a unanimous jury.

What Is Sentencing?

Sentencing refers to a hearing in which a court hears evidence and arguments from the prosecution and the defense regarding the punishment of a perpetrator who has been convicted. In some cases, sentencing occurs right after a plea bargain is reached or a verdict is announced. However, in more complicated cases, a separate sentencing hearing is held. At the hearing, the judge hears arguments from both sides regarding what the proper punishment should be. In some cases, the court may hear evidence as well.

In some situations, a defendant may present evidence and argument to support their request for leniency, and the prosecution would argue for a sentence that is harsher. For some crimes, the sentences for particular crimes are explicitly stated in the law, and the judge has limited discretion. For other crimes, the judge has considerable discretion in determining the proper punishment. Sentencing guidelines may differ between state courts and federal courts.

The most common examples of punishment include:

Payment of fines


Incarceration – Time in jail for misdemeanor offenses, time in state or federal prison for felony offenses, juvenile detention for juvenile offenders, and in-home detention.

Community service

Restitution – Such as paying back money that was stolen or compensating the victim for property that was damaged or destroyed.

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense in which the prosecution offers to drop or reduce some charges in exchange for the defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest. The prosecution may also agree to recommend a certain sentence to the judge. It is up to the defendant to accept or reject the plea bargain. If the defendant rejects it, the case goes to trial. Additionally, they must accept the plea bargain knowingly and voluntarily. Before accepting the defendant’s plea bargain, the judge must ensure that the defendant knows of their rights to a trial and the consequences of waiving that right.

What Is an Appeal?

If a defendant is found guilty and believes that their conviction was the result of an error in the pretrial or trial phases of their case, they can ask a higher court to review the conviction. An appeal can only be based on a legal error, meaning an error of law must have occurred at some point in the process in order for an appeal to be successful. Examples of errors of law can include:

A motion that was improperly granted or denied;

Evidence that was improperly admitted or excluded; and/or

Jury instructions were improper.

In an appeal, the prosecution and defense each file their briefs arguing their respective positions. The court of appeal in the state in which the case takes place reviews the case. In some cases, the lawyers for each side must make their argument orally in front of the appellate court judges. The judges then decide whether the conviction should be upheld.

Appeals can be granted in whole or in part. Or they can be completely denied. Appeals are very rarely successful. If it is, the appellate court usually orders a new trial. If the appellate court completely denies the appeal, the defendant may then appeal the case to the California Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court does not have to review the appeal. It reviews the petition for appeal and grants or denies it. In some rare cases, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would be appropriate.

It is important to note that if a defendant has been convicted and sentenced for a crime as a result of their own guilty plea, the right to appeal is limited. For example, a defendant might make a motion to suppress evidence. If the court denies it and allows the evidence to be presented to the jury, the defendant may then decide to accept a plea bargain. But they could preserve for appeal the issue of the court’s ruling on the motion to suppress the evidence.




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