ARRESTED: On trial

  • Thursday, October 17, 2013

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Editor's note: This is the seventh story in an occasional series on understanding the criminal justice system.




After getting arrested, booked into jail, bonding out, getting an attorney and consulting with him, it's finally time for a defendant's case to go before a jury of 12 of his or her peers (Cue the “Law & Order” “duh-duh.”).


After the attorneys for each side make their pre-trial motions, it's time to select a jury. According to Assistant Solicitor Beth Ann Young of the Second Circuit Solicitor's Office, the pool of 70 or so potential jurors are brought into the courtroom to be qualified by the judge.


Jury selection

First, there is a roll call, during which potential jurors stand and say their names, where they work, their marital statuses and where their spouses work, Young said. The attorneys for both sides are paying attention the whole time.


The judge then qualifies the potential jurors by asking them questions, such as if they are related to someone in law enforcement or if they have been convicted of a crime. Some people are disqualified from jury duty, while others are exempt and transferred to another court date.


The attorney for each side gets a certain number of “strikes” while seating the jury, with the state having five and the defendant typically having five or 10.


“They can be struck for no reason at all,” Young said.


If each attorney approves a potential juror, he or she is seated in the jury box. This continues until there are 12 jurors and usually one or two alternates.


The jurors are sent to the jury room for a short period. After they are brought back, they are sworn in; the judge makes some introductory remarks; and the trial begins.


Opening statements

During opening statements, each attorney tells the jurors what they can expect from the trial, with the prosecution always going first.


“They are statements to give a framework of how the trial is going to go,” Young said.


An attorney can't mention anything during opening statements that he doesn't plan to introduce as evidence. The statements are usually brief and may explain complicated parts of the law.


“For example, if it was a kidnapping case, you might want to talk about how kidnapping doesn't necessarily mean putting somebody in a car and taking them away; it just means restraining them against their will for a period of time,” Young said. “I think it's better to let the details of the trial come from the witnesses.”


Burden of proof

The state must now demonstrate that the defendant is guilty and begins calling witnesses and introducing evidence, Young said. Witnesses may include fact witnesses (someone who saw or heard something), law enforcement who investigated a crime, expert witnesses or even the victims themselves.


After a direct examination of each witness by the state, the defense attorney gets a chance to cross-examine the witness.


Lauren Maurice is a former prosecutor with the Second Circuit Solicitor's Office who now practices criminal defense and family court law in Aiken. While the state lays its foundation, the defense is “making sure they do their job,” Maurice said.


The state puts a variety of items in as evidence, from 911 calls, pictures and surveillance footage to weapons, ballistic evidence, clothing and phone records, Young said. The state also introduces items such as charts and graphs.


The examination and cross-examination continues until the state rests.


“Once we've done everything we feel like we can do and don't have anything else, then we rest,” Young said.


Your ball, defense

A defense attorney usually always makes a motion for a directed verdict after the defense rests, Maurice said. The motion is a procedural matter in which the attorney says he or she still believes a jury will not find the defendant guilty. Most of the time, it's a formality, she said.


The judge will question the defendant outside of the jury's presence about whether or not he or she will testify.


“They're not required to testify,” Maurice said. “The jury will be told they can't use that against them if they don't testify.”


If the judge doesn't grant the motion, the jury is brought back in, and the defense has its chance to present evidence, Maurice said. The defense can call witnesses and examine them, with the state having the chance to cross-examine each one.


The presentation of evidence is typically the longest portion of the trial process, Young said. Based on the amount of evidence, it can take a day or several weeks. Most cases in the Second Circuit wrap up in a few days to a week.


Closing arguments

After each side has presented its evidence, called its witnesses, cross-examined them and rested, it's time for what Young called “the big finish.”


“It's your chance to really tie the evidence together and argue what you think was shown and why you think the person should be found guilty,” she said. “That's your real chance to try and get (the jury) on your side.”


Closing arguments are typically more argumentative and emotional and last longer than opening statements.


“You argue to the jury your point of view on how those facts do or don't meet the burden of proof,” Maurice said. “If you've cross-examined certain witnesses and just got a tidbit of this or a tidbit of that, that's when you can put your point of view of why these little things are important to either show someone is telling the truth or someone is not telling the truth.”


Whomever delivers the first closing argument is determined by whether or not the defense presents any evidence, Young said. If the defense doesn't present any evidence, the defense gets the last argument. If the defense does present evidence, the state gets the last argument. Young and Maurice each said it's preferable to go last.


Once the closing arguments are made, the judge gives the jury members their instructions, which can take up to an hour in some cases, Young said. Jurors are then sent to the jury room to begin deliberating.


“As a solicitor, if I would try to guess what issue it was going to be that was going to hang up with the jury, I was almost always wrong,” Maurice said. “It was always something else.”


Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.


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