In our last blog we talked about how to be a good juror, but I bet you’re also wondering what happens once you sit down in that jury box. Most people know nothing about how a trial works. Here is what you can expect:
A civil jury is typically made up of 6 to 12 people. In a civil case, the role of the jury is to listen to the evidence presented at a trial, to decide whether the defendant‘s carelessness or negligence somehow caused injury to the plaintiff, and to determine what the compensation should be. A criminal jury is usually made up of 12 members. Criminal juries decide whether the defendant committed the crime as charged.
Opening Statements: Broad statements from the lawyer for the plaintiff in a civil case, or the prosecutor in a criminal case will be made summarizing the case and outlining the evidence they will present. The defendant’s lawyer may also choose to give an opening statement after the plaintiff’s attorney or prosecutor, telling you what they expect the evidence to show. It is important to keep in mind that these opening statements are not evidence; they are the attorney’s version of the case and should not be used to sway your decision. Opening statements give the attorneys an opportunity to establish rapport with you, the juror, and to introduce you to the case so that evidence and testimony does not seem disjointed as it is presented.
Presentation of Evidence: Most evidence is presented by verbal testimony of witnesses who testify under oath. The lawyer calling the witness first proceeds with direct examination, then the opposing lawyer may cross examine. After cross examination the first lawyer may ask additional questions on what is called a redirect examination.
Evidence can also be in the form of a written document, an object, photograph or an x-ray. These are usually called “exhibits.” The jury’s decision on the case is based on all of the evidence.
Rulings by the Judge: The judge may be asked to decide questions of law during the trial. Since the jury is to make their verdict only on evidence admitted, occasionally, the judge may ask jurors to leave the courtroom while the lawyers make their legal arguments. Either that or the judge may call the attorneys and court reporter to his chambers or to the side bench, hence the phrase, “side bar.” The court reporter is included because, even if evidence is not allowed, it is still recorded in case of an appeal. Jurors should understand that such interruptions are necessary to ensure that their verdict is founded upon proper evidence, as determined by the judge under the Rules of Evidence.
Instruction to the Jury: The judge gives the jury the Charge of the Court, which includes an explanation of the laws that are applicable to the case at hand and the deliberation process. All the instructions must be given equal consideration when reaching a verdict.
One set of laws never changes. That concerns the burden of proof. When considering the evidence in a criminal case, the defendant, in order to be convicted, must be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, a party suing another has to prove that charge by a preponderance of the evidence. In every trial, the judge will carefully explain the degree of proof required to reach a verdict in his or her instructions.
Closing Arguments: Attorneys for both sides are given an opportunity to review the evidence, usually with the plaintiff/ prosecution going first. After the defense, the plaintiff/prosecution has the right to a rebuttal argument. Part of their job at this time is to sway the jury to accept their evidence as truth. They may make conclusions, but as with the opening statement, this closing argument is not evidence and should not be viewed as such.
Jury Deliberations and Decision: The jury will be excused to the jury room to deliberate. The jury room is private, out of sight and hearing of judge, attorneys, witnesses, parties and others in the courtroom. After debate, sharing of opinions, and careful consideration, the jury will reach a verdict which will be presented by the presiding juror (formerly known as the foreman) to the bailiff.
Sequestered Juries: Juries are rarely sequestered from the public. This normally only happens in high profile cases. Sequestering is the isolation of the jury to avoid the accidental or intentional tainting which could include undue persuasion, threats or bribes.
Criminal Sentencing: Sentencing is normally set by a judge who may accept input from prosecutors, the defense attorney, the victims, and the defendant. Sometimes there will be an indeterminate amount of time set, for instance 1-3 years. The parole board then sets the actual date and conditions of release. Sentencing can also be determinate, in which those given short sentences would fulfill their time as imposed by the judge or receive time off for good behavior.