Federal Criminal Trials

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to trial. Specifically, this Amendment states:

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Federal criminal trials are somewhat like you see on TV. A jury is selected and then both sides present their case. The prosecutor in a federal criminal case has the burden of proof. This means that they have to prove every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. A criminal defendant does not have to prove their innocence.

Reasonable doubt means that if there is any doubt as to whether a criminal defendant committed the crime, then they should be acquitted.

How Long Does It Take for My Case to Get to Trial?

The process to get in front of a jury can take months to even years in federal court. This is always dependent on the types of charges a Defendant is facing.

While a Defendant does have the right to a speedy trial, this is not something that should happen so quickly that a criminal defendant and their attorney cannot adequately prepare for trial. Taking a case from arrest to trial involves a significant amount of investigation on the part of the defense. Experts can be retained to examine evidence and pretrial motions will typically be filed to challenge various aspects of the case itself. In some cases it makes sense for a Defendant to demand a “speedy trial.” In others it can make more sense to take time to look at other aspects of the case and to gather additional evidence to put on a defense.

What Are the Steps of a Trial?

Prior to trial and after investigating the case, pretrial motions are typically filed. These motions can sometimes attack the case itself such as a Motion to Dismiss. In most cases what are known as Motions in Limine are filed. These are filed to get rulings from a Court on various aspects of evidence that might be admissible to attempting to keep evidence out of the trial. These motions are heard outside of the presence of a jury and can be used to frame the way a case will proceed.

Once pretrial motions are heard a case is typically ready for trial. The trial starts with Opening Statements given by the prosecution and defense. Then the prosecutor puts on all of their side of the case through witness testimony and the presentation of other evidence. The term “evidence” is pretty broad and includes witness testimony, documents, videos, physical evidence or even site visits. After each witness testifies, the defense will have the chance to cross-examine the witness to challenge their testimony.

Once the prosecution has called all of their witnesses they will rest their case. Then the Defendant has the opportunity to put on evidence establishing reasonable doubt. Once the Defendant rests their case the judge will read jury instructions and closing arguments are made by both sides to the case. Finally, the jury will be able to deliberate and return a verdict.

How Long Is a Federal Criminal Jury Trial?

Federal jury trials can be as short as a day or two and as long as months. The more complicated the case, the more witnesses and evidence are presented. In a simple case involving a single drug sale there typically are not a lot of witnesses. If the case involves a white collar crime such as embezzlement or wire fraud, there can be a substantial amount of evidence that includes documents, bank statements and testimony.

Can My Family Attend the Trial?

Federal jury trials are public proceedings. This means that members of the public, including family, are allowed to attend the trial. In some cases members of the media will also attend and report on what is happening in the case. There are times that a Court might restrict who can attend a trial, but this is always on a case by case basis.

Why Do the Attorneys Keep Objecting?

Attorneys object during a trial for a variety of reasons. The manner a questions is being asked, the evidence that is being introduced, or the manner a witness is testifying can all lead to objections. The Federal Rules of Evidence are used as the rule book for how a trial is presented. When an attorney objects, they are also sometimes doing this to make a record that could be used later if an appeal is necessary. A judge will sustain or overrule an objection and the presentation of evidence typically then continues.

Should I Accept a Plea or Take My Case to Trial?

The decision as to whether to accept a plea or take a case to trial is extremely complicated and must be discussed in depth with an attorney. This is always something that needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. In federal court, when a Defendant accepts a plea they typically get awarded reductions in their sentence compared to taking a case to trial. This can be a small amount or can add up to a difference of years. No matter what, the advice of an experienced attorney should be sought before taking a plea offer.

Get More Help With Your Federal Criminal Case Today

For more information or to speak to a federal criminal defense lawyer about your case, call Rist Law Office at (619) 377-4660. We will take the time to go through all aspects of a case to assess the best way for a defendant and their family to proceed. There is never a charge to discuss the facts of a case with a potential client and to come up with a plan on how to aggressively defend someone charged with a federal crime.

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