What to Expect at a Felony Jury Trial
If you have been charged with a felony and cannot reach a plea agreement with the district attorney, the next step is a felony jury trial. In Arizona, the defendant has a right to a jury trial. With the agreement of the prosecution, the defendant also has the right to waive a jury and be tried by a judge (a bench trial). The decision on whether to have a jury trial or bench trial should be made in consultation with your attorney. Although this post focuses on the felony jury trial, most of the steps in a jury trial and bench trial are the same.
In a felony jury trial, the first notable event on trial day is the selection of the jury. In Arizona, criminal juries consist of twelve people for capital cases and charges where the defendant faces thirty years in prison. All other felony cases are heard before an eight-person jury, unless a bench trial is conducted. (See Arizona General Statute 21-102 concerning jury size at www.azleg.gov.) The judge can question the prospective jurors. The defense attorney and the prosecution can also pose questions to prospective jurors. This process is called voir dire. The purpose is to find jurors that the parties think will be fair. If a juror is found to be so biased or unsuitable for duty that the juror could not deliver a fair verdict, the juror can be excused for cause. The defense attorney or the district attorney can make a motion to excuse a juror for cause. A judge can also excuse a juror on his or her own volition. In a motion to excuse a juror for cause, the judge makes the final decision.
The defense attorney and district attorney also have peremptory challenges. A peremptory challenge permits the defense attorney and the district attorney to dismiss a juror without making a motion for cause to the judge. In death penalty cases, both sides have ten peremptory challenges. In all other felony cases when only one defendant is on trial, the defense and the district attorney get six peremptory challenges. (See Rule 18.4 of the Az. Rules of Criminal Procedure at Westlaw.)
Peremptory challenges are important. People interpret what they hear and see based on their experiences. Some people view the police as civil servants who keep the community safe. Others view police officers as individuals who abuse their authority. In addition, a person’s level of education, job, and the community in which he or she lives, shapes the person’s values and perception of the world. An experienced attorney knows certain traits indicate a juror is apt to be more or less sympathetic to the defendant or the state. Peremptory challenges permit both sides to dismiss jurors who they think will not be fair without having to convince the judge that the juror is unsuitable.
The felony jury trial begins with the district attorney making an opening statement. In an opening statement, the district attorney tells the jury what the state will try to prove and the evidence the state will produce. The defense attorney has the option of making an opening statement after the district attorney or waiting until the state has concluded its evidence.
Next, the state will call its first witness. The district attorney will question the witness with somewhat open-ended questions. For example, the district attorney will ask questions such as “Where were you on October 17, 2016 at 5:50 PM?” After being questioned by the district attorney, the defense attorney can question the state’s witness. The defense attorney will cross-examine the state’s witness and try to discredit the witness. For example, the defense attorney might ask the witness “Weren’t you at a bar on October 17, 2016?” When the witness answers, yes, the next question would be, “Weren’t you drinking alcohol that night?” The defense attorney does not look to get lucky by asking questions. The defense attorney has to do his homework to know the answer before asking the question.
Once the state has finished its evidence, the defense can offer evidence. The state has the burden of proof and has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the defense does not have to offer any witnesses of its own. Instead, the defense attorney may be able to raise sufficient doubt in the state’s case by cross-examining the witnesses called by the district attorney. If the defense calls a witness, the district attorney can cross-examine the witnesses after the defense has questioned the witness. Just as the defense attorney tries to discredit the state’s witnesses, the distinct attorney will attempt to discredit the defense’s witnesses.
After both sides have finished presenting their evidence, they will make closing arguments. In closing arguments, the attorneys will review the evidence used in the felony jury trial. The defense attorney will argue the evidence is insufficient for a conviction, and the defendant should be acquitted. The district attorney, of course, will try to convince the jury the defendant should be found guilty.
After closing statements, the judge will explain the law that applies to the case to the jury. The jury will then leave the courtroom and deliberate in private. After deliberating, the jury will return with a verdict. Typically, that will be a not guilty or guilty verdict. In some instances, the jury cannot reach a decision because the jury members cannot agree on a verdict (a hung jury).
Hire an Experienced Felony Jury Trial Attorney
Howard Snader knows what it takes to win at a felony jury trial: preparation to deal with the expected and experience to deal with the unexpected. A trial is not just another day at the office. Howard Snader understands you have a lot on the line, and he will fight for you. Call us today.