What Happens In A Jury Trial

Jury TrialWhile most criminal cases end in a guilty plea to some or all of the charges,

occasionally the defendant decides that he wants to go to trial. This may be

because he/she generally feels that he/she is not guilty or that he is not guilty of the

charge that the District Attorney wants him to plead to. Also, the defendant may

be on probation/parole and is worried that a plea will mean more jail time over that

of the crime he is charged. This note will focus on a jury trial although a defendant

has a right to request that a judge act like a jury and decide the guilt or innocence

of the person charged.

Picking The Jury:

The first thing to occur is to have the defendant and the

District Attorney picktwelve people to decide the case. A panel of approximately

forty people are called into court. Questions are asked of them by the judge,

District Attorney, and the defense counsel. This is called “voir dire”. It is meant

mostly to weed out those people who might not be able to be fair in evaluating the

case. Once this occurs the attorneys can then strike out up to eight other people

each for whatever reason they want (as long as it is not for racial reasons). Once

this occurs twelve people plus two alternates are selected to sit in the jury box and

the rest of the people are sent home.

Opening Statements:

After the jury is selected the District Attorney makes

an opening statement telling the panel what he intends to prove and why it will

show that the defendant is guilty. The opening statement is not evidence but is

a guide for the jury as to how the case will go forth. The defense attorney may

then, if she wants, also make an opening statement letting the jury know how

the defendant intends to show that the District Attorney is wrong. The defense

attorney is under no obligation to speak but usually does if for no other reason than

to counter what the District Attorney has just said.

Case For The State:

The Commonwealth then begins the process of proving

its case (proving it beyond a reasonable doubt). This is done by calling witnesses.

Usually at least one of the witnesses is a police officer involved in the case. After

each witness testifies the defense attorney is allowed to cross examine the witness

in order to weaken the testimony or bring out other facts favorable to the defense.

The District Attorney also may bring in exhibits or documents to help prove the

case. Once the District Attorney is done he rests his case. The judge will then

decide if there is enough evidence that the case should be decided by a jury or

dismissed. Usually the case goes forward.

Defense Case:

Under the Constitution the defendant is not obligated to testify

or present any evidence. It is strictly up to the defense. If the defendant wishes to

put on a case and/or testify it follows along the same lines as the state’s case. The

District Attorney can cross examine any witness, including the defendant.

Closing Argument:

After the defense puts on (or doesn’t put on) the case each

attorney is allowed to argue before the jury as to why it should find the defendant

guilty of some or all of the charges or why it should acquit the defendant. Defense

counsel usually goes first because the Commonwealth has the burden of proof

and gets to go last. (In some states the state goes first but is allowed to offer a

rebuttal argument after the defense counsel has spoken.) Closing arguments are

not evidence. While facts will be argued by each side it is the memory of the jury

that counts in the end.


The last thing to occur is the instructions. The judge tells

the jury what the law is that pertains to the case. For instance, in a DUI case the

judge will tell the jury that the facts must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the

defendant operated a car, did so on a public highway, and was under the influence

of alcohol or drugs at the time or have an alcohol level in his blood over a certain

limit. The jury then decides if the evidence proves that the defendant did what the

law prohibits.


After the instructions the jury goes into a room to deliberate. It

normally does not take evidence or testimony into the room although it may return

to the courtroom to listen to certain testimony again. The jury is also permitted to

ask written questions to be answered by the judge. The jury’s decision must be

unanimous either as to guilt or innocence. If not the judge will declare a mistrial

and, if the District Attorney so chooses, another trial is held. If the jury finds the

defendant not guilty of some charges but can’t decide on the other charges the

defendant may be tried on those charges not decided. If the defendant is acquitted

of all charges he is free to go home. If convicted of some or all of the charges he

may be released on bail or put in jail pending sentencing.

The information presented is not legal advice, and your use of it does not create an attorney-
client relationship. No recipient should act on the basis of any content included in the site

without seeking the appropriate legal advice from counsel. Lawrence R. Dworkin, Esq. expressly

disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken based on any content of this site. Because every

case is different, any prior results described on this web site do not guarantee or suggest a similar


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