Criminal Trial: Criminal Law Basics
In the criminal law of the US, trials proceed according to the common law system, inherited from the British, which is adversarial and accusatory in nature.3 min read
In the criminal law of the United States, trials proceed according to the common law system, inherited from the British, which is adversarial and accusatory in nature. An open contest is held between the prosecuting state and the defending individual to determine guilt or innocence according to the law of the land, with the judge acting a neutral arbitrator, sometimes with the help of a jury to determine the facts. This is in contrast to the inquisitorial civil law system, descended from ancient Roman Law, in which the judge takes an active roll in determining the evidence to support a case.
In the United States, the burden of proof is placed on the prosecution, and every defendant is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
Criminal trial begins after charges are brought against the defendant, and the defense and prosecution have agreed on a jury (if the defense wishes a trial by jury). The charges are formally read, and the judge may ask, "Are the counsel ready to proceed?" First the prosecutor, then the defense attorney answer, "Ready, Your Honor," and the trial proceeds.
The prosecution and the defense deliver their opening statements, followed by a brief recess in court. When court resumes, the prosecution begins its "case-in-chief," in which witnesses of the prosecution's choice are brought to the stand for "direct examination" by the prosecution. The testimony of these witnesses will form the substance of the prosecution's case against the defendant. After the direct examination, the defense is permitted a cross-examination, in which the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses is cast in doubt. The prosecution may then redirect the witnesses, attempting to rehabilitate their credibility and restore weight to their testimony. In answer, the defense may re-cross the prosecution's witnesses, again attempting to throw their testimony into doubt. This may continue indefinitely, until both sides are satisfied.