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The Basics of Criminal Proceedings in the US Explained

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Criminal trials in the US proceed according to the common law system inherited from the British. The system is accusatory in nature in that an open contest is held between the defending individual and the prosecuting authorities to determine the innocence or guilt of the individual accused. The judge and jury act as neutral arbitrators in a criminal case.

In this article, we’ll look at the basics of how criminal cases are carried out in the courts. The criminal proceedings presented in this article are applicable in US courts only and therefore may differ in other countries.

Criminal Proceedings in the US: An Overview

Criminal proceedings initiate once charges are brought against a defendant who is believed to have committed a crime. The prosecution and defense must agree to a trial by jury for a criminal proceeding to begin.

At the first hearing in court, the charges are formally read and the judge asks whether the prosecution and the defense counsel are ready to proceed. The trial commences once both the counsels state, “Ready, your honor.”

After the opening statements and a brief recess, the prosecuting attorney begins the “case-in-chief” – a portion of the criminal proceeding in which the party that is responsible for the burden of proof presents evidence in court.

At this moment, witnesses are brought to the stand and are questioned by the prosecuting attorney. The testimony of the witnesses serves as substantial evidence against the defendant. Once they are questioned by the prosecuting attorney, the criminal defense attorney cross-examines the witnesses and tries to cast doubt on the credibility of their statements.

The prosecuting attorney will try to rehabilitate the credibility of these witnesses’ statements by making remarks that restore the weight of the testimony. Again, the criminal defense lawyer will cross-examine the witnesses in an attempt to cast doubt on their testimony. This process will continue back and forth until both sides are satisfied with the cross-examination at which time the prosecuting attorney will end the case-in-chief by saying, “Your honor, the prosecution rests.”

At this point, the defense attorney will be permitted to ask for the criminal charges to be dropped against the defendant due to reasonable doubt relating to the evidence. While cases are not usually not dismissed at this stage, the defense attorney can nonetheless make the request as a symbolic gesture about the strength of the case in favor of the defendant.

Now the defense will call its own case-in-chief for testimony and cross-examination. Once both the sides are fully satisfied, the defense council will say, “Your honor the defense rests.”

After the evidence of both the prosecution attorney and the defense is presented in court, the case will enter into its final stages. At this point, the prosecution and defense can offer a rebuttal and rejoinder, respectively, whereby additional new evidence can be presented in court. Also, previous witnesses may be recalled to highlight the main points of the case.

At the end of the criminal proceedings, the prosecution and the defense attorneys are called on to make summations. The summations are dramatic statements that are made to influence the jury and the judge. At the end of the criminal trial, the judge asks the jury to deliver a verdict.

The importance of hiring a professional criminal defense lawyer cannot be overstated. An experienced lawyer can marshal the evidence in a way that results in a favorable outcome of the client.



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