Over the course of a criminal case, a judge makes many rulings on points of law. Examples include ruling on objections made by attorneys during witness questioning, motions made before and after trial, and after verdicts on guilt. An attorney can always ask a judge to reconsider a ruling on an objection, motion or sentence. A judge typically cannot reverse a verdict given at the conclusion of a trial but can grant a motion for a new trial in certain cases.
Rulings on Motions
Judges routinely rule on motions, which are requests of the court to take certain actions or make specific decisions. For example, a defense attorney may file a motion seeking to have certain evidence suppressed if it was not legally obtained. Typically, a hearing on this type of motion takes place and witnesses are called to testify. At the conclusion of the hearing and after hearing legal arguments by both sides, the judge either grants or denies the motion. Either side can appeal this decision by making a motion to reconsider. In doing so, the requesting party typically submits this request in writing, with an attached legal memorandum that cites legal precedent and contains supporting arguments. If this convinces the judge that he made an error in his prior ruling, he can reverse the earlier ruling.
Read More: Types of Legal Motions
Objections About Testimony
Judges oversee hearing and trial testimonies of witnesses during the litigation of a criminal case. The questioning of witnesses is controlled by rules of evidence that ensure that only proper, admissible testimony is allowed. Some objections are minor, but some can heavily impact the outcome of a criminal case. For serious objections, the losing party could ask for a recess to research the law, and if supporting legal documentation is found, the judge could be asked to revisit the previous ruling and reverse it.
The sentencing of defendants convicted of crimes is another important function judges have in criminal cases. Most crimes typically span a range of sentencing possibilities and judges have some discretion when imposing punishment. In a sentencing hearing, the prosecution submits aggravating evidence to persuade the judge to give harsher sentences, and the defense provides mitigating evidence and asks for leniency. Once the judge imposes the sentence, either side can request the judge alter the sentence by making a motion for reconsideration. However, these motions are rarely successful.
Motion for New Trial
Judges in bench trials, where there is no jury, are the sole determiners of guilt. They hear all of the evidence and listen to the arguments of the attorneys before issuing a verdict. A verdict of not guilty cannot be appealed or challenged by the prosecution. However, a guilty verdict can first be challenged by a motion for a new trial. These motions typically list legal errors made during the trial, which in the fairness of justice, require a new trial. For example, if the defense attorney convinces the judge that illegally obtained evidence was considered in reaching the verdict, a new trial may be granted.
Marcus Schantz is an author and licensed attorney based in Chicago. He holds a Juris Doctor from the Northern Illinois University College of Law, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and microbiology from the University of Texas at Austin.