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What Happens When a Case Goes to Trial? An Informative Guide

Case goes to trial

April 7 2020 - While almost 80,000 people were defendants in federal criminal cases in 2018, only 2% went to trial.

Eight percent of these defendants had their cases dismissed, while 90% pleaded guilty.

Are you wondering what happens when a case goes to trial? There are a few things you should know before making a plea deal.

Understanding your options ahead of time can help you make the best possible decision for your case. Otherwise, going to trial could put your freedom at risk.

Keep reading to discover what happens during a trial. By reading this guide, you can prepare yourself for the process. Here are the answers you need before going to trial and pleading your case.

Meet With Your Lawyer

Before going to trial, it's important you take the time to meet with your lawyer, first.

Many attorneys offer free case evaluations, giving you the chance to discuss the specifics of your case. The information you provide the attorney during this meeting can help you determine your next steps.

Make sure to take the time to find the right lawyer for your case. You can ask friends, family, or other lawyers you've worked with in the past as a place to start. Once you have a shortlist of potential lawyers, dig a little deeper.

Look for a criminal appeals attorney who specializes in cases like yours.

Vetting a Lawyer

The lawyer population is 15% higher than it was 10 years ago. It's important to complete a thorough search to ensure your lawyer is equipped to handle your case.

Head to your local bar association's website and make sure the lawyer you're considering if a member. If they're not, scratch them off your list.

Next, search online for reviews from past clients. If you can't find any, you can ask the lawyer for testimonials during your consultation. When you speak to these previous clients, ask about their experience with the lawyer.

Don't forget to determine the attorney's track record. Do they win the majority of their cases? Do they prefer a plea deal or trial?

Ask about their fees, too. Some lawyers work on a contingency basis, meaning they'll only ask for you to pay if they win your case. Others require a retainer.

Make sure to grasp an understanding of their fees. For example, will you need to pay for an expert witness?

The more you learn about the attorney upfront, the more peace of mind you'll have when trusting them with your case.

Jury or Bench

If the prosecution is charging you with a serious crime, you have the right to trial by jury. A serious crime is classified as a crime that carries the potential of a sentence that lasts over six months of imprisonment.

States can also guarantee jury trials for defendants charged with less severe crimes.

You won't receive the right to a jury if you're facing proceedings that seem criminal but aren't. These cases often include juvenile court proceedings or a military trial.

Even with the right to a jury, you might decide to have a judge hear and decide your case instead. These are known as bench trials.

Most people see the advantages of having a jury presence. You might feel that your peers are more likely to decide in your favor. However, your attorney might believe waiving your right to a jury trial is more beneficial.

For example, your attorney might believe a judge is less likely to display bias after hearing about public news surrounding the crime.

In some federal cases and states, the judge or prosecutor can insist on a jural trial. Cases that involve the death penalty often require juries, too.

Selecting the Jury

Your jury could have a big impact on your defense. Usually, your lawyer and the prosecutor will ask potential jurors questions to determine whether they can remain fair and impartial. This process is known as voir dire.

Your Trial

Before the beginning of the trial, your lawyer and the prosecutor can ask the court for a motion in limine. This provides an opportunity to admit or exclude evidence in the case.

What happens when a case goes to trial? First, the opening statements. The prosecution will provide a brief outline of what they plan to prove. Then, your lawyer will make their opening statement as well.

Witnesses and Evidence

How will my lawyer plead my case?

First, the prosecution will present their evidence and question any witnesses. Your defense attorney can ask the prosection's witnesses questions as well. This is known as cross-examination.

The protection will finish or "rest" they're case. Then, your lawyer has the chance to present witnesses and evidence of their own. They might also ask you to testify, though you don't have to.

It's your constitutional right to remain silent during the case.

Your defense attorney might choose not to present evidence if they believe the protection doesn't have enough to prove guilt.

Closing Statements

Once all of the evidence is presented and reviewed, each side will have the chance to make a closing statement. The prosection will make their closing statement first. In federal court cases, the prosecution might make a second statement to counter the defense's closing statement.

Jury Instructions

What happens when a case goes to trial and the defendant vs prosecutor arguments are over? Next, the judge will give the jury their instructions. This can include an explanation of the law.

It's the jury's duty to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury will need to consider all of the evidence presented to them. They'll need to consider the credibility of the witnesses as well.


Usually, everyone in the jury must agree to acquit or convict the defendant to make their verdict. However, states can allow jury verdicts that aren't unanimous as long as there are more than six jurors.

If the jurors can't reach a verdict, the judge will declare a mistrial. The prosection can then either dismiss the charges or go for a retrial.

What Happens When a Case Goes to Trial?: Understanding the Legal Process

Now that you understand what happens when a case goes to trial, make the first step. Find yourself a qualified lawyer who is equipped to handle your case. Their talents in the courtroom could determine the verdict.

Explore the Law section of the website for more tips. 

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