Trial constitutes showtime for anyone facing federal charges in Pennsylvania's Eastern or Middle Districts. Though your initial appearance, arraignment, and pretrial motions are all important, the stakes are higher once your attorney is making your defense in front of the judge and jury.
In some cases, a judge alone will hear a federal criminal case. This is called a bench trial. However, you can reasonably expect a jury to be part of your trial. The stages in a federal criminal trial generally include the following:
Federal courts maintain a list of potential jurors known as a venire. This is the list from which the court will draw prospective jurors from your case. Citizens that receive notice of jury duty will appear in the designated venue and will become part of the jury selection process.
The questioning of jurors is also known as voir dire, a Latin term meaning “to speak the truth.” During voir dire, your attorney and the prosecutor in your case will:
- Question prospective jurors about their feelings regarding the case and any potential biases they may have
- Excuse jurors without giving reason—a peremptory challenge is when a prosecutor or defense attorney excuses a juror without a stated reason, and your attorney may have a limited number of peremptory challenges to use during jury selection
- Request that the judge excuse jurors with cause, meaning that they display some knowledge or bias that could make them partial to a certain case outcome
Even though your attorney may have a limited number of peremptory challenges, there is generally no cap on the number of jurors they can request the judge dismiss with cause. It is the judge's decision whether to grant or deny a juror dismissal request, whether the request comes from the prosecutor or your attorney.
Once the prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge agree to a panel of 12 jurors, your trial will proceed to the next stage.
Opening Arguments by Prosecutor and Defense Attorney
Opening arguments, or opening statements, set the scene for the prosecution's case and your attorney's defense. These arguments serve as detailed summaries of the trial to come from both the prosecutor's perspective and your attorney's.
Opening statements may contradict each other. After all, your attorney and the prosecutor will likely make opposing cases. The prosecutor will issue their opening statement first, and your attorney can issue theirs after—if they choose to do so. Though an opening statement is customary in federal cases, strategy varies from one defense attorney, and one case, to the next.
Presentation of Evidence
Though no single stage in a trial determines the outcome, the presentation of evidence and witnesses may have the greatest potential to sway a jury. The term “evidence” is common in the American lexicon for a reason—even when someone is not a defendant in a federal trial, we use “evidence” to establish someone's responsibility for a given act.
The types of evidence used in your case will depend on the offense you have been accused of. Evidence may include:
- Video footage of an alleged crime
- A weapon allegedly used in the commission of a crime
- Text messages
- Phone call records
- Emails, social media posts, and other forms of digital correspondence
- DNA evidence
- Financial records
Evidence is rarely black and white and generally does not tell the whole story. It will be your attorney's job to put both favorable and unfavorable evidence into context. Your lawyer should explain why certain evidence does not mean that you're guilty, while other evidence suggests that you're not guilty.
Both the prosecutor and your attorney may present witnesses to put certain evidence into context. Witnesses can also serve a role independent of physical evidence, as we will discuss next.
Direct Examination of the Prosecution's Witnesses
As in opening arguments, the prosecution takes the lead in presenting witnesses. The prosecutor will present witnesses and evidence in a manner that it believes logical, with the aim in mind of convicting you. When the prosecution questions its own witnesses, the process is referred to as direct examination.
The prosecution may present and question witnesses who:
- Are experts: The prosecution may call expert witnesses to testify about specific evidence, you as a defendant, or other aspects of the case. An expert witness could testify that your DNA was at a crime scene or that certain evidence indicates how an offense took place, as just two examples of an expert's role. The prosecution will only call expert witnesses who will confirm the prosecutor's version of your case.
- Are alleged victims of the crime: The prosecution may call anyone who claims to be a victim of the crime you've been accused of. Though the prosecutor may have other motives, calling an alleged victim may be an attempt to sway the jury emotionally.
- Are law enforcement officers: The prosecution may call law enforcement officers as witnesses. These officers may have participated in your investigation, arrested you, or served another role that the prosecution believes is relevant to your case. Such law enforcement officers may be employed by federal agencies that investigate federal offenses. By presenting such officers, the prosecutor may seek to legitimize their case for conviction.
- Witnessed an alleged crime: The prosecution is likely to call anyone who claims that you committed the offense in question—especially if that person claims to have seen you commit the crime. Such witnesses may agree to testify in exchange for a reduction in the charges that they face, and your attorney should absolutely point this fact out during cross-examination.
- Witnessed a conversation related to a crime: The prosecution may present a witness who claims they heard you admit to committing a crime. Such testimony can be flimsy, especially if the witness claims to be the only person who heard you speak incriminatingly.
- Have some other relevance to the case: The prosecution will present any other witness that it believes can credibly help its case.
The American Bar Association (ABA) explains that there are limits to what a witness can say. They cannot generally express opinions, speculate, or comment on issues beyond their realm of expertise. Your attorney will be ready to object to any inappropriate testimony, and the judge should uphold any legitimate objections.
Cross Examination of the Prosecution's Witnesses
Your attorney will have the chance to cross-examine each witness that the prosecution presents. Your attorney may cast doubt upon the testimony of hostile witnesses by:
- Questioning experts' credentials (and, when the time comes, presenting their own experts to refute the prosecution's expert testimony)
- Questioning why an alleged victim engaged in behavior that is inconsistent with victimhood (such as contacting the defendant following an alleged criminal act)
- Showing that it is improbable, or impossible, for a witness to have seen you commit a crime or heard you confess to a crime
- Questioning whether a law enforcement official's investigative techniques were legal or ethical
- Questioning the character or credibility of a witness, which may cast doubt upon their entire testimony
An attorney molds their examination techniques to the case at hand. Your attorney's overarching goal may be to discredit every witness that the prosecution presents.
Presentation of the Defense's Case
Once the prosecutor has presented its evidence and witnesses, your attorney may present their case. First, your attorney may file a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that the prosecution did not meet its burden of proof to proceed further.
Once the trial has reached this point, a dismissal may be statistically unlikely—but, in some cases, still worth a shot.
Assuming that the judge does not dismiss your case, your attorney may present their case in your defense. This case may be the inverse of the prosecution's, as your attorney may:
- Present evidence that casts doubt upon your guilt or even suggests your innocence
- Present expert witnesses who may refute the prosecution's experts or present novel evidence, analyses, or insights
- Present any witnesses who suggest you did not, or could not have, committed the alleged criminal offense
- Make a comprehensive argument tying together all features of your defense
The prosecutor will have the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses your attorney presents for questioning. The prosecutor may also challenge any evidence that your attorney presents, object to your attorney's questions, and file motions throughout your attorney's case presentation. Your lawyer will have the same rights during the prosecution's case.
Your attorney may advise you whether to testify. This decision is unique to each case, and you may have the final say over whether you will testify. There may be advantages and disadvantages to getting on the witness stand, and your attorney can explain those pros and cons to you.
Once your attorney rests their case, the prosecution may have one more opportunity to argue against your defense. Following the prosecution's rebuttal, your case will proceed to the final stage.
Presentation of Closing Arguments
Closing arguments are the last chance for your attorney to convince the jury that you are not guilty of the offense you stand accused of. Both your lawyer and the prosecutor will have the opportunity to make a closing argument, at which time each party may:
- Refresh the jury on the primary arguments of their case
- Remind the jury of specific evidence and testimony they heard during the trial
- Present concise counterarguments to their legal opponent's case
- Ask the jury to return the verdict they seek, and explain why the jury should return that verdict
Your attorney may conclude their closing argument by emphasizing the most compelling aspects of your defense. If certain evidence or testimony strongly hints at your innocence, your attorney may emphasize these elements of your case. The goal is to cast reasonable doubt upon your guilt, making it difficult for the jury to return a guilty plea.
After Closing Arguments, Jury Instructions and Deliberations Will Commence
Before the jury begins deliberations, the judge in your case will give jurors instructions. These instructions can vary based on the type of offense you are accused of. A judge may generally explain to the jury:
- The specific elements of the offense that you are accused of, and the standard of proof necessary to prove those offenses
- The differences between direct and circumstantial evidence and how these differences apply to the jury's mission
- That you have the presumption of innocence on your side
- That they must have certainty “beyond reasonable doubt” to believe that you committed the alleged offense and should return a not guilty verdict if there is reasonable doubt of your guilt
- They must ignore any biases that prevent them from issuing a fair verdict
If your case does not involve a jury, then this stage will not occur. Instead, a judge will simply rule on your case.
Following jury instructions, the jury will retire to a private room which will generally be adjacent to the courtroom. The jurors must reach a unanimous verdict in order to issue a guilty or not guilty verdict. If the jury does not reach a unanimous verdict, the judge may encourage them to continue deliberating. If the jury still does not reach a verdict after multiple deliberations, your case may end in a mistrial.
What Happens If a Case Ends with a Mistrial?
If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision on the charges that you face, a mistrial may occur. If your case ends with a mistrial, the prosecutor will have to decide whether to try you again. A mistrial is generally favorable for a defendant, though a not guilty verdict may be even better.
There may be other grounds for a judge to declare a mistrial. Your attorney may file a motion for a mistrial in the case of prosecutorial misconduct or certain other instances that indicate your trial was not valid.
What Happens If the Case Ends with a Not Guilty Verdict?
If the jury or judge in your case returns a not guilty verdict, you have secured the best possible outcome. This will be our goal if we represent you in Pennsylvania's Eastern or Middle District.
A not guilty verdict generally means that:
- You will be free to return to your life without legal conditions
- The federal government may not try you for the same offense (though matters can be complicated, and we will explain whether you are vulnerable to subsequent prosecution on related charges)
- The federal government would have to find convincing grounds to re-try your case
Regardless of any subsequent prosecution that you may face, “not guilty” are the words that a defendant wants to hear at the end of their trial.
Your Case May Involve Multiple Charges, in Which Case the Jury May Return Multiple Verdicts
Some federal cases involve multiple criminal charges. The jury in your case will be asked to return a verdict for each charge. Therefore, you may face a not guilty verdict for certain charges but a guilty verdict for others.
If the judge or jury issues a guilty verdict for any of the charges in your case, you and your attorney will prepare for the sentencing phase of the legal process.
Post-Trial Motions That Your Attorney May File
Before your case goes to sentencing, your attorney may seek one or more post-trial motions. These are one more tool that a defense attorney has in their belt, and a thorough lawyer may use every available tool as they attempt to secure a positive legal outcome.
Your lawyer may file a motion seeking the following:
- A judge to rule that you are not guilty: Your attorney may request that the judge overrule the jury's guilty verdict, instead issuing a not guilty verdict that takes precedence over the jury's decision.
- A judge to fix the sentence you have received: Rather than overruling the jury's verdict, your attorney may request that the judge rectify some sort of error in the jury's verdict.
- The opportunity for a new trial: In light of a guilty verdict, your lawyer may request that the judge grant you the opportunity for a new trial. Your attorney will likely need to present convincing or even overwhelming evidence for why a new trial is necessary.
The Lento Law Firm will support you at every phase of a trial. Contact us at 888-535-3686.