Criminal Trials

You’ve been arrested and charged with a crime. The charges have not been dismissed, and you have no plea agreement. You’re going to trial. Our lawyers can be with you every step of the way.

People sometimes misunderstand a basic principle of criminal charges and trials. A criminal trial is never a case between the defendant and a victim. It is not a trial between two individuals. It is a trial between the State, represented by a prosecutor, and the defendant, represented by a defense attorney. While the victim of a crime often has considerable influence on whether charges are filed or a plea agreement is reached, those decisions are ultimately made by the prosecutor, not by the victim. Sometimes a victim can refuse to cooperate, leaving the state without enough evidence to proceed, but it’s not really a question of whether the victim “wants to press charges.” The question is whether the prosecutor believes there is enough evidence to convict and, sometimes, whether the prosecutor sees a reason to exercise prosecutorial discretion not to pursue charges even if there might be enough evidence to convict.

There are two broad categories of trials: jury trials and bench trials. In both cases, a judge presides over the trial and makes decisions about things like the admissibility of evidence. In a bench trial, the judge also acts as the “trier of fact,” which means the judge weighs the evidence and decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In a jury trial, a panel of 6 or 12 people (depending on the charge) is the trier of fact. The jury listens to the evidence and the arguments of the prosecutors and defense attorneys, and then the jury members go into a room by themselves where they discuss the case and try to arrive at a unanimous verdict of either guilty or not guilty on each individual crime that the defendant is accused of committing. An important decision that your attorney will discuss with you is whether to insist on your right to a trial by jury or to waive your right and have your case tried by the judge.

If your case will be tried to a jury, the first major step is jury selection, called voir dire. The court will have mailed out written notices to people who live in the county where you are being tried, telling them to appear for jury duty on the day of your trial. A group of them will be brought into the courtroom where your attorney and the prosecutor will have an opportunity to ask them questions. Either your attorney or the prosecutor may move to excuse any potential juror “for cause,” for example if there might be a conflict of interest. After that, your attorney and the prosecutor will have a certain number of “peremptory challenges” that they may use to exclude any potential juror, usually without having to explain why. Once a panel of either six or twelve jurors, usually with one or two alternate jurors, has been selected, the trial begins.

In either case, a bench trial or a jury trial, the prosecutor and your lawyer will have an opportunity to make an opening statement, with the prosecutor going first. In bench trials, opening statements are typically much shorter than in jury trials, and they may even be waived.

Then the prosecution presents its evidence, or its “case-in-chief,” by presenting witnesses and asking the court to admit documents or items into evidence. With each witness, the prosecutor asks questions in what is called “direct examination.” Your lawyer will have to opportunity to object to improper questions, and the judge will rule on those objections, either allowing the witness to answer or not. Once direct examination is complete, your attorney may conduct cross examination by asking the witness questions related to anything that was touched upon in direct examination. When that is concluded, the prosecutor has the option of conducting redirect examination in which he or she is limited to asking questions about matters addressed in cross examination. Then your attorney will have the opportunity to conduct re-cross examination, and so on, until one side has no further questions. In Indiana, jurors are permitted to submit written questions to witnesses, subject to the approval of the judge.

Once the prosecution has completed its case-in-chief, your attorney will present your case-in-chief by the same method, with your lawyer conducting direct examination, the prosecutor conducting cross examination, and so on. After your case-in-chief has been presented, the prosecutor will have an opportunity to present evidence to rebut anything in your case-in-chief, but not to introduce new topics that your lawyer didn’t address. Then your lawyer can rebut the prosecutor’s rebuttal evidence, and so on until neither side has any more evidence to present.

After both sides have presented their cases, they lawyers make their closing arguments, summarizing and analyzing the evidence and explaining why the judge or jury should find the defendant either guilty or not guilty. The prosecutor argues first, then the defense attorney. Then the prosecutor gets to make a second argument to respond to points made by the defense attorney. After closing arguments are concluded in a jury trial, the judge reads a set of instructions to the jury laying out the applicable legal principles, and the jury is taken to the jury room to make its decision. In a bench trial, the judge may render a verdict immediately or, more often, call a recess to take some time to consider the decision.

In any criminal trial, the State bears two burdens: First, the State has the burden of “going forward,” which means that the State must present some evidence on a particular issue before the defense needs to present any evidence at all. Second, the State has the burden of persuasion, which means it has the burden to present evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. If the judge or jury thinks the defendant is probably guilty, but still has some reasonable doubt about it, the accused should be declared not guilty.

Harshman Ponist’s criminal defense attorneys have decades of experience with both bench and jury trials, both as prosecutor and as defense attorney. If you are looking for a lawyer to defend you at trial, you may contact one of our criminal defense attorneys by calling (317) 964-6000 or by submitting an inquiry using the “Contact Us” form on this page.