Clients and their families often ask us about the jury trial process in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Our law firm prides itself on providing information to clients. We have found that an educated client is in a much better position than a non-educated one. If you understand a little bit about the process, you are in a good position to ask questions that might assist your attorney with your case. When it comes to criminal jury trials involving felony or misdemeanor charges, we’ve found that most clients have the following questions:
- How is a jury selected?
Citizens are selected for jury duty and prior to their selection as actual jurors they are known as a “jury panel”. In a criminal trial twelve (12) jurors and two alternates are selected to hear a case. During a process known as voir dire each juror is questioned to determine if this person is qualified to act fairly, impartially, and without interest in the result of a case.
Each attorney is given a certain number of preemptory challenges with which they may excuse a juror without giving any reason. In addition to these challenges both sides have an unlimited number of “challenges for cause” where they may ask the court to excuse the juror because the person is biased or can’t be impartial. During voir dire a judge or one of the attorneys will ask a juror questions about their personal lives and beliefs. Despite maybe some embarrassment jurors must answer each question candidly. Voir dire is a French term which means “speak the truth”.
- What happens during opening and closing statements?
At the beginning of each trial the prosecution and defense have the opportunity to make opening statements. While the defense is not obligated to give an opening statement the prosecutor must do so. During opening statements both sides were outline the evidence they hope to prove but it is important to understand that opening and closing statements are not evidence but only an explanation of what each side hopes to prove or has proven during trial.
During closing statements, again the statements that the lawyers make aren’t evidence. While these statements aren’t evidence, lawyers use this opportunity to point out why their case is stronger or more credible than the other side. In a criminal case unlike a civil matter a burden of proof is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil matter the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) must prove his case by a preponderance of the evidence or in some cases by a clear and convincing evidence.
- How do the prosecution and defense present their case?
The prosecution and defense present evidence which takes two forms; oral and documentary. Oral evidence comes in the form of testimony from a witness. Documentary evidence is usually a writing but can also be a photo, video, or some type of sound recording. In addition to this type of evidence, there is also tangible evidence that’s an object such as a gun in the case of Violation of Uniform Firearm Act (VUFA), drugs (Possession with the Intent to Deliver or Simple Possession, blood (DUI or DWI) or piece of clothing.
- How do witnesses provide testimony?
In a criminal trial a witness can be a person who observed or participated in the event which is the basis for the trial. In addition, either side is permitted to call expert witnesses who probably didn’t observe the event but who is someone, because of his qualifications, is in a position to render a professional opinion to support evidence presented during a trial. In addition to an expert witness either side is permitted to present character evidence or witnesses but the prosecution isn’t permitted to introduce character unless the defense makes it an issue at trial. There are some exceptions to character evidence which allows the prosecution to introduce it without the defense “opening the door.”
- What is the role of the judge during the trial?
The judge is responsible for deciding all issues of law and procedure which occur during the trial and instructing the jury on the law. Prior to trial either side may make motions and ask the judge to take certain actions. For instance the defense can attempt to exclude evidence with a Motion to Suppress Evidence or force the prosecution to present it with a Motion to Produce a Confidential Informant. During trial the attorneys may occasionally go speak to the judge in private which is sometimes called a sidebar discussion. Sidebar discussions are often about matters of law or procedure or matters in which the jury is not permitted to hear certain pieces of evidence.
If you have questions about criminal defense I encourage you to read my book, Commonwealth v. You or 5 Ways to Fight & Win Your Pennsylvania DUI Case! There are also more than 30 instruction videos on our website. These are great resources that we give to you as an opportunity to find out exactly what you are getting when you hire our law firm. You may also find my other article on the top 10 client questions very interesting.