Stages of the Criminal Trial: From Voir Dire to Verdict

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  • 0:20 Voir Dire
  • 1:20 Motions in Limine
  • 2:01 Opening Statements
  • 2:37 Testimony & Evidence
  • 3:24 Closing Arguments
  • 4:01 Jury Instructions &…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the stages of the criminal trial. We will look at what these stages from the beginning of the trial during voir dire through the verdict. We will also look at some specific examples of each stage.

Criminal Trials

The criminal trial is when two parties, a prosecutor representing the government and a defense attorney representing the accused, meet in court before a judge or jury in order to present evidence to support their case. During the trial process there are several stages that make up what we call a trial.

Voir Dire

Voir dire is the process of jury selection. In order to appear for jury duty, citizens receive a notice in the mail. If they are ordered to appear, they arrive at the courthouse and sign in. Then, if there is a trial that will be beginning that day, they go into the courtroom and take part in the process of voir dire.

During this process, the attorneys for both sides ask the potential jurors different questions regarding the case in order to find out if there is something that would make it inappropriate for them to sit as a juror on that particular case. Once these questions are asked, each party gets a part in selecting and releasing some jurors. It varies by state how many jurors are empaneled on a criminal jury trial. For example, in the State of Ohio, there are 13 jurors empaneled on a jury - 12 will actually serve and one is an alternate in case of an emergency with one of the other 12 and that juror is unable to continue serving.

Motions in Limine

A motion in limine is a pretrial motion that addresses various issues that may be encountered during a trial. A motion in limine is filed and addressed in order to resolve potential issues before the trial starts to save time (and prevent possible issues) during the trial. Oftentimes motion in limine will address certain evidence that one party may be attempting to use that the other side objects to. The objecting party will file a motion in limine to exclude the evidence from use in the trial. One example of a motion in limine is a motion to exclude prejudicial information regarding prior sexual partners of a victim in a rape trial.

Opening Statements

Opening statements are the statements that are given by each party, in turn, at the beginning of a trial. These statements are not considered formal evidence; they are merely each attorney's view of what the evidence will show. During opening statements in an assault trial, the prosecutor may describe how the assault occurred, who was involved and what the defendant is charged with. In the defendant's opening statement, he may state his defense against the prosecutor's version of events and why, after the trial is over, the jury should find his client not guilty.

Testimony and Evidence

Testimony is a witness' account of the incident at issue given while under oath. Before a witness testifies, he or she takes an oath to tell the truth. Then, the prosecutor has a chance to ask the witnesses questions, also known as direct examination. Then, the defense has a chance to ask the witnesses questions under cross examination. Once the prosecutor has presented all of its witnesses and all of the exhibits and evidence that it intends to present, the prosecutor rests, or officially ends its case. Then, the whole process of testimony and evidence starts again with the defense, including direct examination, cross examination and resting.

Closing Arguments

Closing arguments are statements given by each side explaining what the evidence showed and how it relates to the crime that the defendant has been charged with. Like opening statements, closing arguments are not considered evidence. During closing arguments, the prosecution will make a summary of their case against the defendant. The prosecution will explain what the evidence showed and how it matches the elements of the crimes that the defendant was charged with. Then, the defense will complete their closing argument. The defense will likely argue why there is not enough evidence to support a guilty finding for the defendant or why their client is in the right.

Jury Instructions

Jury instructions are the rules the jury follows while deliberating. The jury instructions are read out loud at the end of the trial by the judge to the jury. During the instructions, the judge will explain the relevant law in that particular case to the jury and will explain to the jury what such terms as 'reasonable doubt' mean. It is at this time that the alternate juror is dismissed and allowed to leave the courthouse.

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