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Summary of Trial Process

This section is designed to give you some answers to your questions about the trial process. It includes the following sections:

  • The Voir Dire Examination
  • The Eight Stages of Trial
  • The Arguments of Counsel
  • The Charge to the Jury
  • Courtroom Etiquette and Conduct of the Jury

The Voir Dire Examination

To begin a jury trial, a panel of prospective jurors is called into the courtroom. The jury selected to try the case will be drawn from this panel. Alternate jurors may be chosen to take the place of jurors who become ill during the trial.

The panel members are sworn to answer questions about their qualifications to sit as jurors in the case. This questioning process is called the voir dire. This is an examination conducted by the judge and sometimes includes participation by counsel.

The voir dire examination opens with a short statement about the case. The purpose is to inform the jurors of what the case is about and to identify the parties and their lawyers.

Questions are then asked to find out if the individuals are qualified to serve on the specific case. Prospective jurors should answer all questions openly and honestly.

The Eight Stages of Trial

The trial proceeds when the jury has been sworn. There are usually eight stages of trial in civil cases. They are:

(1) The lawyers present opening statements. Sometimes the opening statements on behalf of one or more parties are omitted.

(2) Plaintiff calls witnesses and produces evidence to prove its case.

(3) Defendant may call witnesses and produce evidence to disprove the plaintiff's case and to prove defendant's claims.

(4) Plaintiff may call rebuttal witnesses to disprove what was said by the defendant's witnesses.

(5) Closing arguments are made by the lawyer on each side.

(6) The Judge instructs or charges the jury as to the law.

(7) The jury retires to deliberate.

(8) The jury reaches its verdict.

During the trial, witnesses called by either side may be cross-examined by the lawyers on the other side. Throughout the trial, the judge may be asked in the presence of the jury to decide questions of law. Usually, these questions concern objections to testimony that either side wants to present.

Occasionally, the judge may ask jurors to leave the courtroom briefly while the lawyers present their legal arguments for and against such objections. The law requires that the judge decide such questions.

A ruling by the judge does not indicate that the judge is taking sides. He or she is merely saying, in effect, that the law does, or does not, permit that question to be asked.

The Arguments of Counsel

After prosecution of the evidence is completed, the lawyers have the opportunity to discuss the evidence in their closing arguments. This helps the jurors recall testimony that might have slipped their memory.

The chief purpose of the argument is to present the evidence in logical and comprehensible order. The lawyers fit the different parts of the testimony together and connect up the facts.

It must be remembered that each attorney presents the view of the case that is most favorable to his or her own client. Each lawyer's side appears to be right to that lawyer. Each lawyer's statement may be balanced by the statement of the lawyers on the other side.

The Charge to the Jury

The charge of a judge to a jury in a United States District Court frequently is much more than a statement of the rules of law. Sometimes it may contain a summary of the facts or some of the facts.

It is the jury's duty to reach its own conclusion. This is done upon the evidence. The verdict is reached without regards to what may be the opinion of the judge as to the facts, though as to the law the judge's charge controls.

The judge may point out and may also explain what basic facts are in dispute, and what facts do not actually matter in the case. In other words, the judge may try to direct the jury's attention to the real merits of the case and impartially summarize the evidence bearing on the questions of fact. The judge will state the law related to the facts presented to the jury.

Courtroom Etiquette and Conduct of the Jury

Court sessions begin when the court official opens court. Everyone in the court rises. The judge takes his or her place on the bench, and the court official announces the opening of court. A similar procedure is used when court adjourns.

Common courtesy and politeness are safe guides as to the way jurors should act. Of course, no juror will be permitted to read a newspaper or magazine in the courtroom. Nor should a juror carry on a conversation with another juror in the courtroom during the trial.

Jurors will be treated with consideration. Their comfort and convenience will be served whenever possible. They should bring to the attention of the judge any matter affecting their service and should notify the court of any emergencies. In the event of a personal emergency a juror may send word to the judge through any court personnel or may ask to see the judge privately.

Jurors must not talk about the case with others not on the jury, even their spouses or families, and must not read about the case in the newspapers. They should avoid radio and television broadcasts that might mention the case. The jury's verdict must be based on nothing else but the evidence and law presented to them in court.

Breaking these rules is likely to confuse a juror. It may be hard to separate in one's mind the court testimony and reports coming from other sources.