Contributor: Adam Justinger
If you are charged with a crime, there are two options an individual has for a trial. They can either have a bench trial or a jury trial. A bench trial is a trial by judge (think Judge Judy), while a jury trial is a trial by your peers (think My Cousin Vinny). Under the United States Constitution, an individual has a constitutional right to a public trial by an impartial jury. This is also recognized in both the North Dakota Constitution, and the Minnesota Constitution. While individuals have a constitutional right to a jury trial in criminal cases, very few cases actually go to trial. A recent study shows that 97% of federal cases and 94% of state cases end via plea bargain. So, what is a jury trial?
The first portion of a jury trial is called “voir dire,” which is a fancy term for jury selection. During voir dire, attorneys for both sides as well as the judge are allowed to ask the potential jurors questions. The questions asked by the parties and by the judge are used to try and vet out any jurors that may be biased or unfair against one of the sides. During this process, the attorneys or judge can “strike” a juror “for cause” if they are biased. After questioning, the attorneys get to exercise peremptory strikes. These strikes allow the attorneys to remove jurors from the panel. After all peremptory strikes are used, the jury is selected. In lower level misdemeanor cases, a jury is made up of six people. In higher level misdemeanor and felony cases, the jury is made up of twelve people. On occasion, an alternate(s) will be used in case a juror becomes ill or has an emergency during the trial.
After a jury is selected, the attorneys are allowed to give opening statements. The prosecutor always goes first on opening statements. The defense is then allowed to make an opening statement or defer opening statement until after the prosecutor’s case is complete. This portion of the trial is not evidence. The attorneys are simply stating what they believe the evidence will show over the course of the trial.
After opening statements, the prosecutor begins their case. During this time, they are allowed to call witnesses and present evidence. They may also call expert witnesses to help prove their case. During the prosecutor’s case, the defense is permitted to object to testimony or evidence offered under the Rules of Evidence. After the prosecutor finishes questioning a witness, the defense is permitted to cross examine the witness.
After the prosecutor rests (finishes their case) the defense is permitted to present evidence. This can again be through witnesses, experts, or any other form of evidence. However, the defense does not need to present any evidence. An individual is innocent until proven guilty and has no obligation to present evidence. Defendants are also protected by the Constitution from being forced to testify against themself.
After the defense presents its case, the prosecutor generally has a chance for presentation of rebuttal evidence. During this time, the prosecutor can recall witnesses and/or present further evidence in light of the evidence presented by the defense. If the defense does not present a case, there will be no rebuttal.
Once all of the evidence is presented, the attorneys are permitted to make closing arguments. The prosecutor begins and is allowed to argue their case. The defense is then allowed to make their argument. After the defense concludes, the prosecutor is allowed to make a rebuttal argument. After the rebuttal, the case is submitted to the jury until they come up with a verdict.
Jury trials play a very important role in our society. It is important that if you are facing a crime, you have an experienced trial attorney by your side. For help with criminal matters in North Dakota or Minnesota, please contact Adam Justinger at SW&L Attorneys in Fargo at 701-297-2890. For future articles, check out our blog. This article is for informational purposes only.