What can I expect to happen when my case goes to trial?

The trial process can be intimidating for legal novices and veterans alike. The public nature of trial, competitive atmosphere, and personal investment in the proceedings can make the experience very stressful. However, the process can be less painful when you know what to expect. This article will outline the stages of trial and describe what you will see as a participant.

Jury Selection. Before the trial begins, your attorney may have the opportunity to select a jury to decide the case (This assumes that the case qualifies for a jury, and that you have not chosen to have a judge decide the case instead.). After the judge makes introductory remarks and the jurors swear to tell the truth, the attorneys begin the selection process. Each attorney will ask the jurors questions about their backgrounds and experiences. The attorney can then “strike” a juror from the panel if he decides that the person would not be likely to decide the case in his favor. The final jury will be made up of whoever is left in the group. Note that this process may vary between courts.

Opening/Closing Statements. To begin and end the trial, each attorney will give a statement. The opening statement tells the jury what to expect during the trial. An attorney will often tell the “story” of the case, outline the important evidence, and provide a timeline for important events. The closing statement is an argument of how the evidence supported the attorney’s theory of the case. While opening statements are usually a few minutes long, closing arguments can be significantly longer.

Direct Examination. In this stage, each attorney will call witnesses to present evidence that supports their cases. This usually occurs in a “question and answer” format, where the attorney prompts a witness to answer a series of questions rather than having the witness tell their entire story in a long speech. The attorney may also bring in “exhibits,” or actual pieces of evidence to show to the jury.

Cross-Examination. Once an attorney has questioned a witness, the opposing attorney may ask the witness questions as well. A witness under cross-examination can expect to hear leading questions, such as “Isn’t it true . . .?” or “Didn’t you previously testify that . . .?” These questions are often designed to show inconsistencies in the witness’s statement or to bring out negative information about the opposing party’s case. If you are under cross-examination, try to relax, consider the attorney’s question carefully, and always provide an honest answer. However, also remember to only answer the question that is being asked rather than try to explain with more information. Your own attorney can “re-direct,” or ask you more questions, if the opposing attorney’s questions seem unfair.

Objections. During the course of a trial, you will hear the attorneys make “objections.” While objections can be made for a variety of reasons, the attorney is often saying that: (1) the evidence being presented is not legally appropriate; or (2) the other attorney’s question to a witness is improperly stated. If you are testifying when the opposing attorney objects, stop speaking and wait for instructions.

Appeal. After the judge or jury has given its final verdict, your case is not necessarily over. Attorneys can still ask the court to change the verdict or ask for a new trial. If these motions are rejected, then the judgment is final, and the only alternative is to appeal to a higher court.

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