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Understanding the Trial

Once the jury has taken the oath, attorneys on each side of the case may make opening statements.  Opening statements should not be considered evidence.  Opening statements introduce the attorney’s theory of the case to the jurors.

The next step in the trial is the presentation of evidence.  Usually the plaintiff’s attorney in a civil case or the prosecutor in a criminal case will begin.  When the presentation is complete, the plaintiff or prosecutor will rest and the defense may then present its evidence. 

Presenting Evidence

Evidence may include physical exhibits, such as photographs, objects, or documents.  It can also include a spoken statement from someone under oath, also known as testimony.  On occasion, people may testify before the trial begins.  When the testimony is written down or videotaped and submitted to the court, it is known as a deposition.  The judge will decide what evidence the law allows jurors to consider.

Many things should not be considered as evidence, including the statements and arguments of the attorneys.  Testimony the jury has heard but the judge has ordered stricken from the record should not be considered.  In fact, the jury must treat this testimony as if it was never given.  In addition, things that an attorney offers to prove but which the judge will not allow to be presented, should not be considered as evidence.

It is important that jurors only consider evidence presented during the trial and approved by the judge when making their final decision.  Do not conduct your own research by visiting the location referred to in the case, looking for additional information elsewhere, or using personal knowledge you may have about a person or place involved in the case.

Examining Witnesses

During the trial, attorneys will often call witnesses to testify.  Each witness is sworn in and promises to tell the truth.  A witness may be the attorney’s own client or someone else who can testify on behalf of the client.  In civil cases, attorneys may require the opposing party or someone close to that party to testify.  This person is known as an adverse witness.

When attorneys question their own witnesses, it is called direct examination.  When attorneys question an adverse witness, it is called cross-examination.  Once direct examination is complete, the opposing attorney may cross-examine the witness.  Following those questions, the first attorney can conduct redirect examination.

If a witness says something that fails to answer a question or should not be allowed in the case, the judge may strike the remark from the record.  If this happens, you must disregard the testimony as if it was not given.

Making Objections

Court rules set the guidelines for conducting a fair and orderly trial.  Sometimes, however, one of the attorneys may feel that the questions or evidence presented by the opposing attorney is improper or should not be considered by the jury.  It is the attorney’s responsibility in these instances to make objections to the judge.  If the judge considers the question improper or the evidence inadmissible, the objection will be sustained.  Otherwise, the objection will be overruled. 

The judge’s ruling does not mean that the judge favors one side or attorney over the other, and jurors should not allow themselves to be influenced by the rulings. 

Private Conferences

On occasion, the attorneys may speak to the judge privately at the bench or in the judge’s chambers, or the judge may excuse the jury from the courtroom.  Usually, the judge will explain the reasons for these delays.  No matter how or when this occurs, do not feel slighted or attempt to guess what is being discussed.  Generally, the attorneys and judge are discussing legal matters about the case, covering sensitive matters beforehand to minimize the possibility of a mistrial, or clarifying issues that could lead to an appeal and possible retrial.  Sometimes, the parties reach a settlement during these conferences.  While it may seem that time is being wasted, these conferences often avoid longer trials or any trial at all, which saves juror and court time, and considerable public expense.

Closing Arguments

After the attorneys have presented the evidence, they make closing arguments.  Closing arguments provide a summary of the attorneys’ arguments and evidence, but are not evidence themselves and should not be considered as such.