Procedures in criminal felony trials differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; however, there are certain commonalities shared by all criminal courts. The steps in a felony trial are set forth in the applicable rules of criminal procedure. All state jurisdictions, as well as federal courts, have criminal procedure rules which define how a felony trial is to proceed.
Model Rules of Criminal Procedure
The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (see Reference 1) promulgated the Uniform Rules of Criminal Procedure in 1974. Many states adopted these uniform rules, either in whole or in part, to provide a structured format for criminal courts, including the felony trial process.
Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure
The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (FRCP) outline criminal procedure for felony cases starting in Rule 3. Before a felony case goes to trial, there is a period of pretrial discovery and motions. Pretrial motions include a motion for judgment on the pleadings, requesting mental evaluations, discovery or the issuance of subpoenas. In addition, during the pretrial period the defendant may file notices for an alibi defense, insanity defense or public authority defense. (See Reference 2, Rule 10-12.3.)
Jury Selection, Opening Statements & Witnesses
If the defendant invokes his right to be tried by a jury, then a jury must be chosen. Potential jurors are gathered in the courtroom, and the attorneys have a chance to question jurors to ensure that they can consider the facts in an unbiased way and render a fair decision. After the jury is impaneled, the prosecutor makes his opening statement to the jury. The opening statement is an outline of how he will prove his case to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense also has an opportunity to make an opening statement to the jury. Once the opening statements are completed, the prosecution will begin calling its witnesses, and the defense attorney may cross-examine the prosecution’s witness once the prosecutor has completed his questioning.
The Prosecution Rests & the Defense Case
After the prosecution has presented all its witnesses, the prosecuting attorney rests its case, and the defendant may present his case-in-chief to the jury. The defendant is under no obligation to present a case, and can simply argue that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence for the jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Closing Argument & Verdict
Before closing argument, the judge will meet with both the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney to discuss jury instructions. The jury instructions are read to the jury by the judge after the conclusion of closing statements. The prosecution goes first in closing arguments, then the defense attorney. The prosecution has the last opportunity for a short rebuttal. After the closing arguments are completed, the case goes to the jury. If a guilty verdict is returned, the defendant will then be sentenced.