What to Expect at Trial

A criminal trial is the most high-profile part of any criminal case. Less than 10% of cases nationally actually go to trial. Most are resolved before trial through a plea bargain. Of course, as a former prosecutor and now as a Wyoming criminal defense lawyer, I have spent more than 15 years in the court room, actively trying cases. So while statistically it may be unlikely that your case will go to trial, rest assured that if trial is necessary, I am fully prepared to try your case.

Meeting with the Judge

Judge Icon Before trial, you will have met with me and my trial team to prepare you for what will happen at trial.

I will also have had numerous pretrial meetings with the judge and the prosecutor. Everyone involved will be familiar with your case and, in general, the evidence that each side will present.

On the first day of trial the prosecutor and I will meet with the judge in her chambers. We usually discuss logistics of the trial, like how many witnesses each side will call and when those witnesses are expected to testify. The judge will often make a final attempt to resolve the case through a plea bargain. She will also address any pretrial motions that have been filed. These usually relate to how evidence will be presented, and whether any evidence will be excluded or limited.

Jury Selection - Voir Dire

Jury Icon Trial begins when the judge invites the jury into the courtroom.

In a jury trial, the judge and jury have separate and distinct functions. The judge makes decisions about the law, like whether the prosecutor met the burden of proof, and whether certain evidence admissible. She also oversees the conduct of the trial. The jury will evaluate the evidence presented, then decide whether the evidence is credible, and whether or not to convict the defendant.

The judge usually begins by welcoming the members of the jury, asking them some basic questions, and reviewing how the trial will proceed.

Once the judge finishes her questions, the prosecutor will ask the jury questions, and will even ask specific questions of individual jurors. We call this process voir dire, which is French for "look and say."

When the prosecutor is finished, I conduct my voir dire of the jury.

The voir dire questions go back and forth, and each side has the opportunity to excuse jurors. Jurors may be excused for cause, which means that a juror is biased about the case and cannot fairly weigh the evidence. The prosecutor or defense lawyer can also use peremptory challenges to excuse a juror, meaning that we do not think they'd be a good fit for our case. In a Wyoming criminal trial, each side has a limited number of peremptory challenges, determined by the type of case being tried. For example, a capital murder case will have more peremptory challenges that a DWUI case.

Opening Statement

Person Speaking Icon After voir dire, the lawyers make their opening statement. This is a short, plain statement of what the lawyer expects the evidence to show. Opening statement introduces the jury to our side of the case.

Throughout the trial the prosecutor will almost always go first because the State has the burden of proof. Once the prosecutor finishes her opening statement, it is my turn to introduce our theory of the case, and why we feel a conviction is not warranted.

As a criminal defense attorney, my opening statement usually addresses deficiencies in the evidence. I point out what the prosecution needs to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, in order to get a conviction, and I emphasize where the State falls short.

Prosecution's Case in Chief

Fingerprint Icon Once opening statements are finished, the prosecution will call its first witness. This is often a police officer, but it could be anyone with evidence relevant to the case. The prosecutor's questions will bring out testimony and other evidence to establish the necessary elements of the case - the things the prosecutor needs to prove in order to get a conviction.

When the prosecutor finishes questioning a witness, I will cross-examine the witness. Whereas the prosecutor must ask open-ended questions on direct examination, on cross examination I can ask more pointed questions that usually call for a "yes" or "no" answer. My questions are intended to point out holes in the witness's testimony. I may question a witness's credibility, reliability, bias, or whether they really saw what they think they saw. When I finish my cross-examination, the prosecutor will have the opportunity to re-direct, clarifying any points based on the questions I asked.

This process continues for every witness the prosecutor calls. Once the prosecutor has called all of her witnesses and presented all the evidence she intends to, the prosecution will rest its case. This means they have finished presenting their evidence and believe they have enough to secure a conviction.

Defendant's Case in Chief

Scales of Justice Icon When the prosecution is finished, I present my case-in-chief.

Because the defendant does not bear the burden of proof, I usually do not need to present as much evidence as the prosecutor. In fact, most of my work is done cross-examining the prosecutor's witnesses, pointing out the shortcomings and deficiencies in their testimony.

But if there are witnesses I want to call that were not called by the prosecutor, this is my opportunity to do so. This is the only instance during the trial when the defense asks questions first. I will ask open-ended questions of our witnesses (the direct examination), then the prosecutor gets to cross-examine the witness. If there are any clarification questions, I can ask those on re-direct.

Once we have presented any evidence we feel is necessary, the defense rests its case.

Summation/Closing Argument

Witness Testimony Icon Once both sides have presented their evidence, we move to closing arguments. This is our final opportunity to convince the jury that our side is right. A good closing argument pulls together all the evidence presented, and asks the jury to draw a conclusion. My closing argument usually focuses on what the prosecution needed to prove, and where it fell short. Sometimes, I will offer an alternate theory for what happened. Other times, I simply show that the prosecutor did not meet its burden, and that a conviction is not warranted.

Jury Deliberation

Jury Deliberation Icon After closing argument, the case goes to the jury for deliberation.

The judge will read jury instructions, which explain the law and the charges against a defendant.

Then the jury goes to the jury room to deliberate until they reach a verdict.

Accused of a Crime in Wyoming or South Dakota? Contact Me Today

Trial is a complex and difficult process. It is not something you want to go through without a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney.

If you have been accused of a crime in Wyoming, you need a team of experienced criminal defense professionals that you can trust. Don't delay. Contact Just Criminal Law today.

Based in Gillette, Wyoming, Just Criminal Law represents people in Northeast Wyoming and Western South Dakota. Call 307-686-6556, email office@justcriminallaw.com, or complete our online form to schedule a free initial consultation.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only. This information is not offered as legal advice. A person accused of a crime should always consult with an attorney before making decisions that have legal consequences.