When writing crime dramas, or about laws and the court system in general, having a court trial can be a great way to build dramatic tension. In order to make the most of these scenes, though, it is important to know how trials work from the pretrial stage all the way through to what happens after the last fall of the judge’s gavel.
Before the Trial
There are two major stages before a case actually goes to trial. First is the pleading stage, in which the complaint is brought to a judge to be decided if the case is fit to go to trial. There are essentially four parts to this process, which are the:
• Filing Complaint. The plaintiff or offended party will file a complaint with the courts, stating the wrong that has been committed against them for review.
• Summons. The summons is a notification sent to the defendant notifying them of the plaintiff’s complaint against them. The defense generally has about 30 days to respond, or there may be a default judgment against them.
• Motion to Dismiss. This is where the defense responds to the plaintiff’s complaint and files a motion to dismiss the claim.
• Motion for Judgement. This is where both parties either settle the claim out of court, push for a judgment based on the evidence presented or the court decides to move the case towards trial.
These steps are more often seen in civil suits rather than criminal cases. From here, the trial moves towards the pretrial stage, which is more consistent between criminal and civil court trials. The pretrial stage consists mostly of investigation and discovery. This is when the plaintiff and defense teams perform their separate investigations in conjunction with law enforcement to gather their evidence. There may be motions made with the court to suppress certain key pieces of evidence, such as an identified party in a lineup, the defendant’s statements to the police, or items found through a search warrant. Pretrial discovery can be somewhat limited when it comes to criminal cases, and in some jurisdictions, the prosecution may allow the defense to review their file through a process called open file discovery. Many criminal trials are resolved long before the case ever reaches a jury. Plea bargains are, essentially, a reduction in a potential ruling or sentencing in exchange for a guilty plea. Depending on how strong a case the prosecution might have, a defendant’s lawyer may strongly recommend that his or her client take the plea deal.
The Court Case
The trial is the most well-known portion of a criminal hearing, as well as usually the most publicized. A trial consists of seven stages, which include the:
• Jury selection
• Opening statements
• Prosecution’s case
• Defense’s case
• Closing arguments
• Jury instructions
Throughout these seven steps, it’s important to note that the defense is not required to call any witnesses or conduct any cross-examinations. It’s entirely up to the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt.
After the Verdict
After a plea or a guilty verdict, the judge will proceed to sentence the guilty party. The judge determines the sentencing based on the minimum and maximum guidelines outlined by set statutes and can only be guided or influenced by the prosecution at this point. For felony charges, sentencing can include upwards of one year in prison while misdemeanors have a maximum of a year jail time. There are non-prison sentencing options as well, such as fines and probationary periods. After the sentencing, the guilty party has the option to appeal his or her ruling thought the federal appeals process. The appealing party presents his or her case in writing, including evidence, documentation and his or her arguments for the appeal. This appeal is generally reviewed by three judges who come to a final decision on the matter. If you want a federal case appealed, find out how long they take, why they’re granted and the probability of it succeeding.
Court trials may seem complex at first, but once you understand the basic structure and order in which they work, it becomes much easier to understand the process and be able to include a court trial in your writing. While you don’t have to include each and every step leading up to the trial, add what is necessary to add crucial details and information.
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