This is the Fifth and final Part of a series of Blog Posts, Charged with a Felony What Happens Now? You can find Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here. Each part will tackle a different aspect of a felony criminal case from the arrest and complaint to sentencing. Each post is designed to give an explanation of that post's topic, to be used in conjunction with the entire series.
Previously, I explained some of the background information involved with the filing of felony charges, the different manners in which a criminal case begins, whether by a felony Complaint or an Indictment from the Grand Jury. In addition, I have discussed the Arrest, Bond and Arraignment portions of felony cases; the Preliminary Hearing and what it is, what it involves and what it means for your felony case; and what the Discovery phase is all about.
In this post I will be discussing the Trial phase of your felony case. As with my prior posts I will explain what it is, what it involves and what is the purpose. A defendant's right to a fair trial is one of the most fundamental aspects of our society.
Now that you have completed Discovery and reviewed all of the evidence, it is time to start preparing for your trial. But before your trial date, you and your attorney will use this time to finalize your trial strategies. This occurs during the final months of the pre-trial stage, which is a loosely define term that encompasses everything up to the trial.
In the months leading up to the trial date, the parties will wrap up any outstanding issues with respect to suppression motions or identification of witnesses. Though suppression motions can often be dealt with earlier, it is usually better to wait until after all of the discovery has been completed.
Under Section 15 of Article I of the Constitution of Missouri and pursuant to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, individuals have the right to be free from illegal searches or searches of their property or person. This protection prevents officers from stopping individuals and searching them without probable cause or a properly issue search warrant.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
U.S. Const. amend. IV.
After discovery has been completed, your attorney will likely draft motions to prevent the prosecution from being able to use certain wrongfully obtained evidence. This is done using motions for suppression. These motions seek to suppress physical evidence as well as statements made by the defendant which have been procured by an officer in violation of Constitutional protections.
The point of a Motion for Suppression is to suppress certain evidence - in other words, to have the Court say that the parties are not allowed to use this piece of evidence or that statement during the trial.
Under Missouri rules, these motions must be made in writing and specifically identify those pieces of evidence which you are seeking to have suppressed and the reasons for the Court to grant the request. Vague or general objections to allowing "physical evidence" or "statements" without identifying which items of evidence or which statements, will be denied. If a Defendant is not able to provide a legal basis on which to make their request for suppression, then the Court will likely deny the request.
At the suppression hearing, the State is responsible for presenting enough evidence to persuade the Court that the motion should be overruled. Therefore, the State will call its witnesses and conduct direct examinations. The Defendant has the opportunity to follow up with cross-examination of each witness. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court must decide whether the State has proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant's motion to suppress should be overruled.
If you have never seen a hearing on a Defendant's motion to suppress, it looks very similar to certain aspects of a trial. It will often take place in the same courtroom, before the same judge and it will have the same attorneys arguing for either side. Additionally, the witnesses called during this hearing will also likely be called at the trial.
In the final weeks leading up to the trial date the parties will be busy filing Motions in Limine, finalizing and sharing their witness lists and their exhibit lists. Additionally, the parties are responsible for drafting and filing with the Court Jury Verdict instructions. The deadlines for each filing and exchange is a matter that is determined by the trial judge.
Motions in Limine
"A Motion in Limine is generally referred to as a pretrial request for 'an evidentiary ruling that a particular piece of evidence has potentially inflammatory characteristics or aspects that outweigh whatever materiality it possesses.'"
Attorneys file these motions in order to prevent the other side from presenting evidence which is either prejudicial or legally irrelevant. If the Court grants the motion, then it will prevent the other party from being able to use that evidence to improperly persuade the jury. It is different from a motion for suppression in that unlike evidence at issue in a suppression motion, the motion in limine deals with evidence that was not illegally procured.
Motions in Limine are useful since they can reduce the length of testimony and streamline the issues for the jury to consider. After motions have been argued and ruled on, the parties are ready to proceed to trial.
On the morning of your trial, the first item to complete is for the parties and the Court to choose a jury. In Missouri, criminal juries consist of twelve citizens. This is a Constitutional right afforded by Article I Section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution. A Defendant, with the approval of the Court, may waive a jury trial and try their case directly to the Judge; this is known as a Bench Trial.
After a Jury has been selected the Court must then swear them in. This is an important step. Once a jury has been sworn in, Jeopardy applies and the State cannot charge the Defendant again for the same crime based on the same set of facts. The Constitution prohibits Double Jeopardy.
This is the part of the trial where the Prosecuting Attorney explains to the jury the charges brought against the Defendant. The State further briefly explains how it will prove its cause. They will also no doubt thank the members of the jury for performing their civil duty.
The Defendant's attorney can either give their opening statement immediately after the Prosecutor's, or they can reserve the right to present their opening argument after the State's case has concluded but before the Defense case proceeds. Sometimes a defense attorney believes that their argument will have a greater and lasting effect on the jury after the State has rested its case.
The State's Case
After opening statements have been given, the State will proceed with its first witness. The Prosecutor will then try to elicit responses from each witness that help prove certain elements of the crimes charged against the Defendant. During this testimony, the Prosecutor will introduce pieces of evidence by having the witness testify about them.
Once the Prosecutor is finished with their direct examination of a witness, Defense Counsel will have their opportunity to cross-examine the witness on the stand. This right to cross-examination is part of the embodiment of the criminally accused's Sixth Amendment U.S. Constitutional right to confront their accusers.
After the State has called their last witness, and the Defendant has had their opportunity to cross-examine that witness, the State rests their case. At this point, Defense Counsel will usually make a motion for the Court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the State failed to meet its burden. The State's burden is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty of each element of each crime charged. If the Judge feels that the State was unable to meet this standard, then the Judge can grant the Defendant's motion.
The Defendant's Case
If the Court denies the motion for a judgment of acquittal, then the Defendant may proceed with his case. At this time the Defense Counsel can give their opening argument if they previously reserved it.
Some Defendant's choose not to present any evidence or witnesses on their own behalf, either believing that the State did not prove its case or because they do not have any evidence not already presented. Other times, a Defense Counsel may call a witness who previously testified during the State's case. This is because an attorney is limited to what they may ask a witness on cross-examination; therefore, they must call them during the Defendant's case in order to ask questions not previously permitted.
After the Defendant has finished presenting evidence, the Defense will then rest its case. Depending on whether evidence is submitted or testified to that was not addressed in the State's case, the Prosecutor may be able to present rebuttal witnesses and evidence. If no rebuttal evidence is offered, then the Court will take a break and allow counsel to prepare for their closing arguments.
After all evidence has been submitted to the jury and each party has rested their case, the attorneys for each will then be given a set amount of time in which to make their closing arguments to the Jury. The State may break their closing argument up and present part of it before the Defendant's closing argument, and then use their remaining time to rebut the Defendant's points. The closing arguments will generally consist of impassioned pleas for the Jury to "do the right thing" and, either convict the Defendant if the Prosecutor is speaking or acquit the Defendant if their attorney is speaking.
After closing arguments, the case is handed over to the Jury to render a verdict, or decision, as to the Defendant's guilt or innocence.
The Jury will be given precise instructions for each charge filed against the Defendant. These instructions cannot be deviated from by the Jury. After they have been given the instructions they are given as much time as they require in order to render their decision.
There are three possible outcomes to a jury trial: a hung jury, an acquittal, or a conviction. A hung jury occurs when the jurors cannot come to a decision, i.e. they are deadlocked. When this happens, the Court will order a mistrial and the matter will likely be reset for a new trial at a later time.
If the Jury cannot present a unanimous guilty verdict, then the defendant is deemed acquitted. Additionally, the Jury could return a unanimous verdict of not guilty.
If a Defendant is found guilty, they then will have the right to appeal to a higher court. There are many bases upon which someone might be able to appeal a case. These have not been covered here.
I hope that you have found this series helpful, and remember that if you are ever charged with a crime your first action should be to talk with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Anthony Bretz will help you understand what is happening in your case and fight for your rights each step of the way. Contact our office today and start protecting your rights.