Criminal Law - Federal

The Stages of a Federal Trial

A federal criminal trial can be more complex than a trial in a state court. Federal offenses generally come with severe penalties for a conviction, including prison time in a federal penitentiary. If you are facing an arrest warrant for a federal crime, you should take the charges seriously.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand the federal criminal process and prepare you for trial. Your attorney can also negotiate a plea agreement to help you avoid the most serious penalties.

Grand Jury Investigations

Federal charges are initiated by a grand jury indictment. The grand jury is made up of a group of citizens acting as an investigatory body, who hear evidence presented by a United States attorney. Evidence may include photos, videos, documents, and witness testimony.

No judge is present during this investigatory court proceeding. The grand jury’s job is to determine whether the U.S. attorney has met their burden of proof to support probable cause for a federal crime involving the defendant.

How Is a Federal Grand Jury Different Than a Federal Criminal Jury?

Generally, a felony criminal jury trial includes 12 jurors who unanimously decide whether a person is innocent or guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Under criminal law, the standard for a criminal trial is higher than for the grand jury.

Can the Defendant Be Present at Federal Grand Jury Proceedings?

Unless they are given special permission by the U.S. attorney, the defendant and the defendant’s attorney are not present during the grand jury proceedings.

What Are the Stages of a Jury Trial in Federal Court?

Some parts of a federal case happen before the jury is chosen. This can include initial appearance, plea bargaining, pre-trial motions, and preliminary hearings. The stages of a federal jury trial include:

  • Voir dire, or questioning and selecting the jurors
  • Initial jury instructions and swearing in the jurors
  • Opening statements made by prosecutors and defense attorneys
  • Direct examination and presentation of government witnesses and evidence
  • Presentation of the defense witnesses and evidence
  • Rebuttal witness testimony by the U.S. attorney
  • Closing arguments made by attorneys of both sides
  • Final jury instructions and jury deliberations
  • Jury verdict

What Is Voir Dire and the Stages of Jury Selection?

Voir dire is the examination and questioning of potential jurors. The judge begins by reading instructions to the potential jurors regarding the law, criminal charges, and the jury process.

Both parties and the judge question the potential jurors and use their “jury strikes” to dismiss a juror. The process narrows the group down to individuals who can be impartial and are approved by the judge and attorneys.

A judge hears objections about striking potential jurors from the pool. There has to be a basis for why the potential juror should not be allowed and can’t be fair. There is no limit to these challenges.

Attorneys can also make peremptory challenges to dismiss a juror for any reason, as long as it is not based on race, gender, or ethnicity. The U.S. attorney has six peremptory challenges, and the criminal defense attorney has 10 challenges.

The total number of jurors typically includes 12 for a felony criminal case and one to six alternate jurors. The prosecution and the defense can agree to less than 12 jurors after a trial begins if the court finds it necessary to excuse a juror for cause.

Are Interpreters Required in Federal Criminal Jury Trials?

The court must provide certified language interpreters for defendants who do not speak English as a first language, or for people with hearing impairment. A victim can also request an interpreter.

What Happens During the Trial?

After opening statements, the prosecutor presents witnesses and evidence that they believe meets the burden of proof that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor can only ask non-leading, open-ended questions in this stage, called direct examination. The defense attorney can ask more questions on cross-examination.

The defendant also has a right to present evidence for an affirmative defense. The district court judge will rule on what evidence to allow. Defendants have a right to testify but don’t have to. They can testify regardless of their defense lawyer’s opinion. The prosecution can present rebuttal testimony to counter any evidence presented by the defendant.

Both lawyers will make closing arguments, where they can argue based on the evidence and cannot comment on federal sentencing issues.

The judge then reads the jury instructions outlining the law and elements of the case. The jury then deliberates on the evidence. When they reach a unanimous final verdict of guilty or not guilty they let the jury attendant know. The jury may find a defendant guilty of only some counts or acquit the defendant on all criminal charges. The judge reads the final verdict in open court.

How Can a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Help?

Federal criminal cases are complex and there is a lot at stake. An experienced criminal defense attorney understands the court rules and federal laws governing the federal court system. From arraignment to appellate filings, an attorney can help you understand what you’re facing. Your lawyer can explain your legal options and defense strategies and represent you in court to guide you through the proceedings while protecting your constitutional rights. If you want the best chance of maintaining your freedom and reducing the consequences of a conviction and criminal record, talk to an attorney.

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