Hand holding a gavelWhen the state has charged you with a crime and you're facing trial, you usually have a choice. You can ask for a bench trial, where only a judge decides your case. You can ask for a jury trial, where 12 people must all agree that you're either guilty or innocent. Unless you specifically ask for a bench trial, a jury will decide your case.

Everything Begins With the Jury

First, your lawyer and the prosecutor - the state attorney who is trying to prove that you're guilty - must pick 12 people who will judge your case. Both lawyers ask a large group of people a series of questions to try to weed out anyone who might not vote fairly. This process of questioning is called "voir dire." The 12 people who remain become your jury.

Your Lawyer Explains Your Case

After the lawyers have selected the jury, your trial begins. The lawyers will each have a chance to tell the jury that you're guilty or innocent, and to explain how they will prove it. The prosecutor goes first. These are called "opening statements."

Your Lawyer Proves Your Case

Your lawyer can't simply tell the jury that you're not guilty. During the middle part of a trial, your lawyer gives evidence that proves your innocence. The prosecutor will also give evidence to try to prove your guilt. Witnesses testify for both sides and the lawyers offer "exhibits" - documentation or physical proof to back up their cases. These days, a lot of exhibits are electronic.

Your Case Goes to the Jury

Both lawyers use "closing statements" to speak to the jury one last time at the end of a trial. They recap their evidence and to try to convince the jury to vote for your guilt or innocence. A lawyer who thinks the prosecutor hasn't proved a good case against you can file a motion, asking the judge to acquit you. The judge will either dismiss your case before it goes to the jury or send the jury off to "deliberate."

During deliberations, the jurors try to come to a unanimous decision. If they decide you're guilty, the judge will sentence you and tell you what your punishment is, usually at a separate hearing.

Sometimes the Prosecution Can Try Again

If the jury decides you're innocent, the prosecutor can't charge you with the same crime again - but all 12 people have to be in agreement. If 11 people think you are innocent and even one person thinks you are guilty, this creates a situation called a "mistrial." The prosecution can ask for a new trial and you'll have to go through the whole process all over again.

A Criminal Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding criminal trials is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.

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