What To Expect in the Courtroom – Does Hollywood Get it Right?
Ever wonder how accurate courtroom portrayals are? Is there ever a time someone would really yell out, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”?
There are a ton of movies and TV shows that depict both lawyers and judges talking down to plaintiffs, defendants and each other or doing all sorts of theatrics.
But in reality…
While what you see on screen is fun, sometimes compelling, and always interesting, it just isn’t like that in real life. In fact, the likelihood a case will even go to trial is minimal. According to the most recent statistics, about 95 percent of pending cases settle pre-trial.
What if my case does go to trial?
If your case does make it to trial, there are a uniform set of procedures most criminal trials follow. The first is to determine whether it will be tried in front of a judge or jury.
The defense often has the right to decide whether a case will be tried in front of a jury or just a judge (bench trial). Knowing the differences between the two and the benefits and drawbacks of each is an important part of preparing an effective trial strategy.
Bench trials take place in front of a judge only and usually take less time because attorneys don’t need to go through the process of jury selection. They are beneficial when you want a speedy resolution to the matter and they tend to be less formal than jury trials.
The drawback is there is only one decision-maker instead of a jury of peers, so just one person weighs the credibility of the evidence presented and determines what happens.
Jury trials are tried in front of a jury composed of members of the community who listen to the evidence from both sides and render a verdict.
The benefit of a jury trial is impartiality as jurors don’t answer to anyone for their decisions and they are not up for re-election or governor reviews like judges are.
The drawbacks are they are time-consuming and jurors might not always follow the law as much as they follow their emotions.
The trial proceedings
Every trial proceeds in basically the same way. The people involved are a prosecuting attorney for the government, the defendant, and their defense attorney.
The various legal procedures associated with criminal trials have developed over centuries and usually include the following:
Jury selection and evidence issues
First up is jury selection and the defense and prosecution determining and agreeing on what evidence will be admitted or excluded.
The attorneys begin by making their opening statements. These are to give the jury an overview of the case they are presenting. The side that is bringing the case (the prosecuting attorney) bears the burden of proof and always goes first. The defense attorney then follows with their opening statement.
The prosecution presents
After opening statements, the prosecution presents its case through direct examination of their witnesses. The defense may cross-examine the prosecution witnesses and after that, the prosecution rests.
Motion to dismiss
At this point, the defense has the option to move to dismiss the charges if it thinks the prosecution failed to produce enough evidence to support a guilty verdict. Except in rare cases, the judge usually denies the motion to dismiss.
The defense presents
The defense presents its case and conducts a direct examination of defense witnesses. The prosecutor cross-examines the defense witnesses and then the defense rests.
At this point, the prosecution has an opportunity to rebut the case of the defense by presenting contradicting evidence to their presentation. For example, if the defense calls a witness to testify as an alibi for the defendant, the prosecution may call a rebuttal witness to testify that the alibi isn’t true.
The defense, prosecution and judge get together and settle on the final instructions the judge will give to the jury.
Each side makes its closing argument, summarizing the evidence and explaining why the jury should render the appropriate verdict, guilty or not-guilty – or perhaps guilty of a lesser charge.
The prosecution goes first, then the defense, then the prosecution is allowed a rebuttal if it chooses to take it and have the last word.
Jury instructions and deliberations
The judge instructs the jury and they deliberate. Juries must typically be unanimous otherwise be considered a “hung jury” where the case may then be retried.
If the jury comes back with a guilty verdict, the defense often makes a post-trial motion asking the judge to override the jury and grant a new trial or acquit the defendant. In most cases, the judge denies this motion.
If the trial ends in a guilty verdict, the judge can sentence at this time or set the sentencing for another day.
Hollywood portrayals of courtroom proceedings don’t reflect reality, as real life courtrooms are far less dramatic. In fact most cases don’t even make it to trial.
So if the odds are your case wouldn’t even make it to trial, why would it be important to hire an experienced trial attorney? The number one reason is that your case may still end up in that small percentage of cases that do go to trial.
And secondly — just as important — since without a trial you’ll be facing pre-trial settlements, arbitration and/or mediation, a trial attorney will bring much-needed strategy and experience to the trial alternatives as well.
If you are facing charges, there are many decisions you’ll have to make. Talking to an accomplished trial attorney right away protects your rights.
As your lawyer, John W. Tumelty will carefully evaluate your particular situation and help determine the steps you should take to resolve the matter in the best possible way.
Tumelty has 30 years of experience in criminal law. He is a former deputy attorney general with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and former assistant prosecutor with the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.
This article, and other articles, on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.