Anatomy of a Trial


Mark Pryor is an assistant district attorney in Travis County,Texas. A former newspaper reporter, he will write for every other Wednesday giving readers a glimpse into the world of a state prosecutor in Texas. Today, he explains to our readers the “anatomy of a trial.”

In substance they (trials) are all different, of course, all fact-dependent, but the basic skeleton is the same: a two-part sytem whereby guilt is assessed in the first phase, in other words where the jurors are faced with the yes/no issue of “Is the defendant guilty of the crime charged?”
Then comes the second phase, the assessment of punishment (i.e., probation? How many months/years in jail?) if the defendant is found guilty in phase one.

Here’s how it breaks down, starting with the Guilty/Not Guilty phase:

1. Voir dire — on Monday afternoon after the morning docket, the panel of 60 jurors is seated and the lawyers conduct voir dire. Here in Travis County, we always have two ADAs trying a case, the lead lawyer (aka the “first chair” and a helper, or “second chair”). The first chair prosecutor goes first, then the defense attorney talks to the panel. Strikes for cause and peremptory challenges are made, and the final 12 is chosen.

2. The reading of the charge — this usually happens Tuesday morning. Before the trial gets under way one of the ADAs will stand before the jury and read the indictment. The defendant will be asked how he pleads (always “not guilty,” hence the need for a trial).

3. Opening statements — immediately after the reading of the indictment the prosecution will give its opening statement. It’s called a “statement” as opposed to an “argument” because both sides are limited to telling the jury what they believe the evidence will show, as opposed to arguing what the evidence means. For the State, it’s usually the first chair who gives the opening.

4. State’s case — the State will put on all the witnesses it belieevs it needs to prove the case beyond a reaosnable doubt. When finished, the ADA will tell the judge and jury that “The State rests.”

5. Case for the defense — if the defense is planning to call witnesses, to mount a defense that way rather than arguing that the State has simply failed to meet its burden, then this is when the defendant’s witnesses testify. Once they have done so, the defense counsel will similarly anounce, “The defense rests.”

6. State’s rebuttal witnesses — if the defense has put on witnesses, the State may call additional witnesses to rebut their testimony. For example, if the defendant calls his boss to testify that he believed the defendant was working that day, the State can call his work colleagues to testify that, in fact, he was not at work that day.

7. The “Close” — after all rebuttal witnesses, the State will tell judge and jury “they State closes.” The defense will do the same.

8. Preparing the Jury Charge — if it hasn’t been done beforehand, or during trial, the judge will hand a copy of his proposed charge to the prosecutor and defense lawyer. If they are satisfied with its contents (see below) they say so, or if not they ask for changes. The judge has the final say what is included.

9. Reading the Jury Charge — The jury is brought back in and the Judge reads the charge to them. So what is the charge? The charge lays out the elements of the crime charged, and gives legal definitions for some or all of those elements. For example, in a DWI case the charge will give the legal definition of “intoxication.” The charge is a roadmap for the jurors to follow in deliberation, and they are told to consider only those issues included in the charge. Another example: in a murder trial a jury cannot deliberate on whether the defendant is insane if that issue isn’t inlcuded in the charge.

10. Closing arguments — most lawyer’s favorite time. Studies show that most jurors have made up their minds by this point, but we don’t seem to care. We are far too impressed with our rhetorical skills and powers of persuasion to worry about that! Again, because we have the burden of proving the case, the State goes first. Then the defense gets to argue, and when they are done the State gets to finish the argument. Usually, here, the second chair takes the first part of closing, and the first chair takes the last part.

11. Deliberations — after the closings, without further ado, the jury is sent to begin its work.

12. Punishment phase — if the verdict is “not guilty” then that’s it, there is no more. If it’s “guilty” then we move onto the punishment phase. This second trial is structured pretty much like the first, in terms of who does what when. The State puts on evidence of other nasty thins the defendant has done, and the defense puts on mitigating evidence.

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