How A Trial Begins

The United States of America has a two-part court system: Federal and State. Both court systems follow similar procedures. A court does not decide what cases will be brought to it. Criminal cases begin when a prosecutor charges someone with a crime. Civil cases begin when a plaintiff brings a lawsuit against someone else (a defendant).

Examples of criminal cases: stealing a car, selling illegal drugs, killing someone.

Examples of civil cases: not paying a bill, claiming damages for carelessness, not honoring a contract.

The judge and the jury are the last to enter the courtroom at the beginning of a trial. The judge sits at the front of the room, higher than the rest of the court, and faces everyone.

The plaintiff’s attorney usually sits at a table closest to the jury, facing the judge. The defense attorneys and their clients sit at a separate table next to the plaintiff’s attorney.

The plaintiff’s attorney begins the trial with an opening statement. The defense attorney can also give an opening statement. The opening statement is just to give the jury an idea of what the case is about and to highlight what the attorneys believe are the important points in the case. The opening statement is not evidence for the jury to consider in making a decision on the case.

The plaintiff’s attorney presents evidence by calling witnesses. After the plaintiff’s attorney asks questions of the witness, the defense attorney may also ask questions of the witness. When a plaintiff’s attorney asks questions of his own witness, it is called a “direct examination.” When a defense attorney asks questions of the plaintiff’s witnesses, it is called “cross examination.” The defense has a choice whether to testify and whether to call witnesses. If the defendant or other defense witnesses testify, the plaintiff’s attorney may cross-examine them.

During the trial, the attorneys are allowed to make “objections” to testimony or other evidence. The judge rules on each objection and either agrees with the objections (in which case the judge will state, “sustained”) or will not agree with the objection (in which case the judge will state, “overruled”).

The plaintiff’s attorney will make a closing statement at the end of the trial. The defense attorney may also make a closing statement, or closing argument. The purpose of the closing statement is to summarize the case and remind the jury of each side’s most important points of the case.

The judge will then read a set of instructions to the jury, which tells the jurors what legal rules they must follow in reaching a decision.