Criminal Cases in California: The Trial

To continue our series on criminal cases in California, let us take a look at one of the most important steps of all: the trial. These criminal court proceedings are what will determine one's guilt or innocence, in the eyes of the law, for an alleged crime. What happens during a trial will directly impact a defendant's entire future.

In California, a defendant in a criminal case has the right to a trial by jury for any misdemeanor or felony offense. Before the trial takes place, however, a defendant will have the opportunity to decide whether to face a trial by jury or a court trial, where a judge will render a verdict. Most defendants choose jury trials because they want a group of their peers to hear the evidence and determine their guilt or innocence. There are some occurrences where a defense attorney may recommend a court trial without a jury, however, if this may benefit a defendant's case. The decision in your case will vary depending on the unique circumstances.

Because any person accused of a crime is presumed innocent, the prosecuting attorney will carry the burden of having to prove the defendant's guilt in court. Guilt must be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, and in a jury trial all jurors must reach a unanimous decision for a verdict to stand.

A standard criminal trial in California may proceed as follows:

  • The defense and prosecution will select a jury. This process is called "voir dire." At this time, both sides may ask jurors questions to see whether they will be fair and impartial. Some jurors may be dismissed and others will be kept, until a group of 12 regular jurors and a certain number of alternate jurors have been selected to take part in the trial.
  • The next step will be opening statements. Both the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney have the right to make an opening statement regarding the trial. They may take this opportunity to set the stage for the case they are to present.
  • The defense and prosecution will then present evidence through witnesses who will testify to what they have seen or know. Each witness may be examined by the side that brought him or her to the stand and then cross-examined by the other side. Expert witnesses may also be called to the stand, who may testify about specialized evidence or areas of their expertise.
  • After all witnesses have been examined and cross-examined, the defense and prosecution will make their closing arguments. This can help them wrap up their cases with any final statements to the jurors.
  • The jury will then deliberate, which means they will have a private meeting in which they will enter votes of "guilty" or "not guilty." If they do not reach a unanimous verdict, they may discuss this matter and review witness testimony, evidence and jury instructions to see if they can all reach the same decision. Deliberations are presided over by the head juror.
  • One the jury reaches a verdict, they will report this to the court and the verdict will be read to the defense and prosecution as the final step of the trial.

Criminal trials are complex proceedings that can be influenced by an attorney's ability to communicate with jurors, examine and cross-examine witnesses and prepare a strategy that helps the jury see their side of the story. This makes involving a competent criminal defense lawyer of the utmost importance. Even a seemingly helpless case may be won at trial, depending on the approach and the skill of one's attorney.

At Lessem & Newstat, we are seasoned trial lawyers who are prepared to fight for our clients in California's criminal courts. If you would like to find out how we can provide quality defense counsel in your case, please call for a confidential case review. We represent clients in Los Angeles and across Southern California.