In courtrooms across the State of Georgia, people accused of committing a crime are often asked by the judge or prosecutor: “Are you pleading guilty to the charges?” When you rightfully answer NO, you may be alarmed to hear the judge set your case for a jury trial.
Being placed on a jury trial calendar could mean one of many things:
- Sometimes it means the judge and prosecutor are trying to scare you into resolving your case as soon as possible by accepting a plea deal.
- Sometimes it means you are on a list with 10-20 other people who were also told to be ready for trial. Due to time constraints, only 1 or 2 cases will actually be tried, and the remaining cases will be postponed allowing you to continue negotiating a possible plea deal.
- AND Sometimes it means you better have a lawyer because you’re about to go to trial.
So what should you expect if your next court date is your jury trial?
Before your trial starts, a judge will hear any pre-trial motions filed by your attorney or the prosecutor. This can include motions to suppress evidence, motions to keep out statements, motions to exclude your prior bad acts, and any other motion that can give your attorney a slight edge during trial.
Sometimes pre-trial motions can determine the outcome of a case. For instance, a judge can decide during pre-trial motions that you are immune from prosecution if you acted in self-defense. A judge could also decide that a prior unsubstantiated accusation of sexual assault from years ago can be used against you in a trial for sexual assault.
During Jury Selection, also known as Voir Dire (pronounced however your judge likes to pronounce it), your attorney and the prosecutor can ask questions to a group of random people selected for jury duty. These questions are asked to identify which jurors are unbiased and capable of holding the State to the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You and your attorney can unilaterally pick jurors you DO NOT WANT on the jury; however your attorney and the prosecutor must agree on the jurors you do want on the jury.
Numerous studies have found that pre-trial bias and a pre-trial understanding of ‘reasonable doubt’ will significantly impact a juror’s verdict despite any instructions they receive from a judge. For that reason, picking the right people on your jury can be the difference between winning and losing.
During the opening statements, your attorney will introduce your story and your defense to the jury. Evidence is not presented during opening statements. Instead, the attorneys give the jurors a preview of what they should expect to hear at trial.
The State must present witnesses because they have the burden of proving your guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. After their witness testifies, your attorney has an opportunity to cross-examine that witness and ask any questions on your behalf. This back and forth can go on until both attorneys say they have no further questions. In some courtrooms, the Judge and even jurors are allowed to ask the witness questions.
Evidence and testimony will only be admitted if the judge finds that the witness is properly qualified. For example, your mother will not be allowed to testify that she has diagnosed your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend with split personality disorder—unless a judge is satisfied that your mother is an expert on split personality disorders, and that she was your ex’s personal doctor.
For that same reason, If the State wants to use DNA evidence, they need a DNA expert. If your attorney wants to introduce medical evidence, then you will need a medical expert.
What if a Witness Does Not Come to Court?
If a witness was properly served with a subpoena and they do not come to court, a judge can order their arrest. Many prosecutors take great offense to a witness who has the courage (or ignorance) to refuse to come to court, and in some cases will arrest that witness and make them wait in jail until they have testified at trial—even alleged victims of crimes.
Will I have to Testify in my Own Defense?
The decision to testify is solely your decision to make. One of many bad things that happen when a criminal defendant testifies is that jurors begin to question his/her believability instead of focusing on whether or not the prosecutor has proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
While “your performance” as a witness is impacted by inexperience and the anxiety of losing your liberty, the prosecutor’s witnesses have testified hundreds of times and in fact attend multiple trainings teaching them how to present well in front of a jury. The odds are already stacked against those accused of a crime and testifying can sometimes make those odds worse.
Your attorney should be able to analyze your unique situation and advise you as to when it is necessary to testify.
After both sides have presented their case, they will give closing arguments. Because the prosecutor has the burden to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, they are allowed to go first and last in closing arguments. That means the prosecutor can present their closing argument, then your attorney presents your closing argument, and the prosecutor gets to speak again to the jury before deliberations begin.
Jury Instructions, Deliberations, & Verdict
After both parties have completed their closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury about the law and the deliberation process. Jurors are then sent to a room where they will deliberate until they come to a unanimous decision. All twelve jurors (or 6 jurors in a misdemeanor case) must agree to convict or acquit. A judge can order a jury to deliberate for days if they are unable to reach a conclusion. If the jury informs the judge they were unable to come to an agreement, the judge will declare a mistrial and your case will be back on a regular trial calendar.
Are you ready for a jury trial? Call us today at (404) 445-8443.