Never attempt to fight a criminal charge in a court of law without the assistance of an experienced Farmington Utah criminal defense lawyer. The rules of evidence in a criminal trial are complex.
Direct evidence is first hand evidence of the defendant’s guilt, such as a direct eyewitness to the crime or a voluntary confession by the defendant. With circumstantial evidence, however, the government introduces pieces of evidence from which the judge or jury may draw inferences as to the defendant’s guilt. Thus, circumstantial evidence is much like the pieces of a puzzle. The government hopes that after the presentation of all of the circumstantial pieces of evidence, the judge or jury will put all of the pieces together and neatly conclude that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. There is nothing unlawful or unconstitutional about building a criminal case based primarily upon circumstantial evidence. In fact, without the ability to use circumstantial evidence, the majority of crimes would likely go unprosecuted for lack of direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt.
Throughout its case-in-chief, the government must produce evidence on each of the material elements of the offense. If, for example, the defendant is charged with the crime of larceny, the government must produce evidence that defendant (1) took and carried away (2) the personal property (3) of another (4) with the intent to steal. If the government fails to produce sufficient evidence on any of the material elements during its case-in-chief, then that failure is cause for acquittal of the defendant and a complete dismissal of the charges.
During the government’s case-in-chief, the defendant will have an opportunity to cross-examine the government’s witnesses. Through the cross-examination process, your experienced Farmington Utah criminal defense lawyer will attempt to attack and discredit the government’s case. Skillful cross-examination can be quite an effective tool for the defendant and, indeed, may significantly impede the government’s efforts to prove its case. It is important to note that the defendant is under no obligation to cross-examine witnesses or even to speak during the criminal trial, and the government may not comment to the judge or jury on the defendant’s failure to do so. As a practical matter, however, during a criminal trial the defendant remains silent at his own peril, particularly if the government is presenting a compelling case. If the government is able to produce legally sufficient evidence on each of the material elements during its case-in-chief, the case will continue and proceed to the presentation of the defendant’s case.
During the defense phase, the defendant may present evidence to support his theory of the case. Additionally, if the defendant is presenting certain types of defenses, such as self-defense or insanity, the defendant will be required to produce specific evidence to support these defenses. Of course, the government will be permitted to challenge evidence and cross-examine witnesses produced by the defendant. A defendant in a criminal case is not required to testify and may not be called as a witness by the prosecutor. However, if the defendant chooses to testify, he will be subject to cross- examination by the government just as any other witness put forward by the defense. At the conclusion of the defendant’s presentation of evidence, the government will have an opportunity to respond to the defense evidence in the rebuttal phase of the trial. During the rebuttal phase, government witnesses are presented to respond to the evidence introduced by the defendant. Once again, the defendant is entitled to challenge evidence and to cross-examine government witnesses presented during this phase.
At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence, each side “rests” and closing arguments begin. Closing arguments provide an opportunity for each side to summarize and emphasize the main points of the evidence presented during the trial. The prosecutor usually begins by discussing specifically each piece of evidence that proves the material elements of the case. One of the goals of this exercise is to remind the jury of the prosecution’s strongest points and to explain, if necessary, any perceived weaknesses in the government’s case. The closing argument for the defense has a somewhat different focus. Typically, the main goal is to highlight and hammer away at the weaknesses of the government’s case. If the defendant has presented an alibi or any other defense during the trial, the closing argument will also emphasize these defenses as another way to neutralize the government’s case.
Finally, the government will have the last word in the closing argument during the rebuttal. The closing rebuttal allows the government to refute statements made by the defense during its closing argument and to again emphasize the strongest points of the government’s case. Overall, closing arguments are the last opportunity for both sides to persuade the judge or jury of the merits of their respective cases. Just as in the opening statements, no evidence is offered and closing arguments are presented in a narrative fashion.
Jury Instructions and Deliberation
The U.S. Constitution provides that a defendant in a criminal trial is entitled to a trial by an impartial jury selected from the state and district where the crime was committed. The jury trial mechanism was added to the criminal trial process to prevent oppression by the government and bring together the shared common-sense judgment of lay citizens to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. As the first true measure of impartiality, prospective jurors must survive the voir dire process. During this process, the defense, the prosecution and the judge, through direct questioning of the prospective jurors, seek to detect actual or potential bias. Most questions probe potential jurors’ backgrounds, education, beliefs and experiences.
Additionally, prospective jurors are questioned as to their prior knowledge of or relationship to the defendant. In celebrity trials, the question of prior knowledge of the defendant with celebrity status is usually answered in the affirmative and is therefore not the most accurate measure of bias or a basis for exclusion from a celebrity trial. Instead, the more important inquiry relates to the prospective jurors’ ability to overcome their previous knowledge of the celebrity defendant and reach a fair, impartial verdict. This line of questioning during the voir dire represents a critical point in the process for both the prosecution and defense because it provides the first insight into the possibility that the burdens of proof might be implicitly reallocated.
For example, if a number of prospective jurors respond favorably or admiringly when queried as to previous perceptions of the celebrity defendant, this may signal that the prosecution, in addition to proving the elements of the crime, must also transform the “celebrity” into the “defendant.” During this transformation, the prosecution must endeavor to avoid the appearance of attacking the celebrity figure. In other words, the prosecution must effectively convey the message to prospective jurors that “it’s not personal.” In contrast, voir dire provides the defense with an opportunity to personalize the defendant and bolster his credibility, reputation and celebrity status through carefully crafted questions.
After closing arguments, a judge who is deciding the case will simply take the case under advisement to determine a verdict. The judge knows the law and will apply it to the facts gleaned from the presentation of evidence during the trial. In contrast, if the case is being tried before a jury, then the judge must instruct the jury on the law to be applied to the case. For example, the judge instructs the jury on the appropriate burden of proof (beyond the reasonable doubt), the nature of direct and circumstantial evidence and the elements of the offense. The judge also specifically instructs the jury that they are to determine the facts of the case based solely upon the evidence admitted at trial, and then to apply the law to those facts.
After the jury instructions, the jurors retire to the deliberation room taking with them all of the evidence admitted during the trial. Although most of the jury deliberation process is secret, jurors usually begin by selecting a foreperson to lead the deliberations. Since criminal trials must be decided by a unanimous verdict, jurors might take a poll early in the deliberation process to see how many votes are for, against or undecided about the guilt of the defendant. Jurors will then begin to discuss the evidence and engage in a process of subtly persuading their fellow jurors of their beliefs. Throughout the deliberations, jurors may also ask to have certain points clarified or questions answered by the judge, particularly if there is a misunderstanding as to the applicable legal standards. Depending upon the nature and complexity of the trial and the evidence, the deliberation process could take hours, weeks or months. In high-profile and/or controversial cases, the jury may be sequestered during their deliberations so that they have no contact with information that might unfairly taint the decision-making process.
The goal of the deliberation process is to determine whether the government has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard of reasonable doubt, which is constitutionally required in criminal cases, essentially means that after careful examination of all of the evidence, jurors do not feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. This definitional language, which is practically standard for jury instructions, has often resulted in confusion. Some jurors want to know exactly what constitutes an “abiding” conviction and/or by whose standard do we measure “moral” certainty? Nevertheless, many courts refrain from attempting to further define the term “reasonable doubt” for fear of further confusing jurors and ultimately tainting the outcome of the trial.
Thus, jurors must rely upon the facts, the law and their collective wisdom when determining a defendant’s guilt.
When considering the evidence and assessing reasonable doubt, jurors may evaluate only those facts developed during the trial and draw logical inferences from those facts. Jurors may not consider evidence that was not admitted at trial and may not interject their personal biases or predilections into the fact-finding process. Perhaps most importantly, jurors must understand that the standard “beyond a reasonable doubt” does not mean that they must be free of all possible doubt as to the defendant’s guilt–just of reasonable doubt. This standard of proof is peculiar to criminal law and is the highest burden known to law, particularly since the defendant comes into the trial cloaked with a presumption of innocence. The rationale for this elevated standard of proof arises from the enormous stakes involved in a criminal trial. Because the criminal defendant faces the potential loss of liberty and the moral stigma attached to a criminal conviction, the government is required to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt before society is willing to impose penalties that infringe upon the defendant’s significant liberty and privacy interests.
At the conclusion of the deliberation process, if the jury has reached a unanimous verdict, they will advise the judge. The judge will then call all of the parties back to the courtroom to hear the jury’s verdict. Once the verdict is announced, each juror is polled to assure that the verdict is indeed unanimous. If the verdict is acquittal, the defendant is free to go and, pursuant to constitutional double jeopardy standards, can never be tried for that particular crime again. However, if the verdict is guilty, the defendant may be taken into custody and, in some cases, will have to await sentencing at a later date. In some jurisdictions, the same jury that convicted the defendant will take part in the sentencing phase and determine an appropriate punishment. In other cases, after the verdict, the jury members are thanked for their service and excused. The judge later determines an appropriate punishment for the defendant.
In some cases, after considerable deliberation, the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict and will be deadlocked or “hung.” When the jury reaches a point of deadlock, they will usually advise the judge, who will encourage them to continue the deliberations in hopes of reaching a unanimous verdict. Despite this encouragement, however, some juries are simply unable to reach a unanimous verdict, even after lengthy deliberations. Under those circumstances, the judge declares a mistrial and excuses the jury. If there is a mistrial because of juror deadlock, the government can elect to re prosecute the case and try for a more favorable outcome with a new jury. A mistrial due to a hung jury does not raise double jeopardy concerns because the original trial does not result in any final determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence; prosecuting the defendant again is considered merely a continuation of the previous trial.
Famington Utah Criminal Defense Attorney Free Consultation
If you need legal help with a criminal charge in Farmington Utah, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506