- Learn about jury selection.
- Follow a trial from opening statement to closing arguments.
- Explore the public policy rationale for the trial system.
After discovery is finally completed, and assuming that neither side has been successful in short-circuiting litigation through motions, the case is finally scheduled for a trial. In civil litigation, this is a most unusual development, for well over 90 percent of cases filed are resolved or settled before a trial. If a case actually goes to trial, it means there are genuine issues of fact that the parties cannot resolve, and both sides are determined to see their side win. Remember that a trial is a fact-finding process, through which the trier of fact (the jury in most cases or the judge in a bench trial) attempts to determine what happened. The trier of fact applies the facts to applicable law as instructed by the judge and determines guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or liability or no liability in a civil case. The first step in this process is to seat a jury.
At any given day in a courthouse, several citizens may be called by a judge as potential jurors in a case. If a jury needs twelve members, it’s not unusual for a judge to begin with a pool of more than fifty or sixty potential jurors to narrow down to a dozen. The process of selecting a petit jury is called voir dire.
Voir dire typically begins with the jurors filling out a written questionnaire. The questionnaire asks the jurors to identify their occupation, any work or occupational conflicts, and any potential conflicts of interest with the case. The process then continues with attorneys quizzing each potential juror in turn. During this questioning, attorneys ask each juror if he or she has any biases against upholding the law and whether he or she can keep an open mind during the trial.
If an attorney does not like a juror’s response, that juror may be excused. There are two types of challenges to a potential juror: peremptory or for cause. A party can make a for cause challenge if it can demonstrate to the judge that there is a good reason to excuse the juror, such as the juror’s personal relationship with one of the parties, or the juror’s stated unwillingness to be unbiased. Since these excuses are for a good reason, each side is allowed an unlimited number of for cause challenges. A party can also make a peremptory challenge against a juror, without giving any reason for the challenge. Since these challenges are unsupported by rationale or reason, each side is given a limited number of peremptory challenges. A party may make a peremptory challenge based on a juror’s perceived bias because of that juror’s occupation or life background but may not make a peremptory challenge because of the juror’s raceBatson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). or gender.
After a jury has been selected and sworn in, the trial begins. The plaintiff or prosecution begins by delivering an opening statement. The opening statement is a preview of the trial. In it, the attorneys explain the facts of the case to the jury and indicate what witnesses they will be calling and what the witnesses will say. Attorneys do not make any arguments during the opening statement; they simply lay out what jurors can expect from the trial ahead. In a trial against your vehicle’s manufacturer, your attorney may begin by telling the jury to expect testimony from you about your car accident, from your doctor about the injuries you suffered, and perhaps from an expert witness who has examined your vehicle and believes it was manufactured defectively. Once the plaintiff has delivered an opening statement, the defendant will deliver the defense opening statement. In a criminal case, the defense has the right to reserve delivering the opening statement until after the prosecution has rested its case (concluded presenting all the witnesses).
After opening statements, the trial moves into the examination phase. Jurors are presented with witnesses, called by each side, to give evidence. The plaintiff begins by calling its witnesses. The attorney will guide the witness in delivering testimony by a series of short open-ended questions during the direct examination. Leading questions (questions that call for a yes or no answer) are not permitted during direct examination. As the questioning proceeds, a court reporter maintains a record of all the words spoken in case there is an appeal. The opposing side may raise objections during the examination, which the judge will rule on. These rulings can also form the basis for a later appeal.
All the evidence in a trial must be introduced in this manner (questioning a live witness). If one side wants to introduce videotape into evidence, for example, it has to call the person who took the footage or was in charge of running the camera to testify about his or her personal knowledge of where the camera footage came from before the jury can watch the video. In a criminal case, if the prosecution wants to introduce the murder weapon into evidence, it must first call the detective or police officer who found the weapon to testify about where he or she found it and where it has been since then.
O. J. Simpson’s criminal murder trial was probably the most-watched courtroom proceeding in history. During the trial, the prosecution sought to introduce a pair of gloves into evidence. The prosecution claimed the gloves contained blood from the victims. In this scene, the defendant, O. J. Simpson, is asked to try on the gloves so that the jury can see for themselves whether or not the gloves might belong to him. The fact that the gloves appear too small for his hands later becomes fertile ground for the defense attorneys to argue that reasonable doubt exists as to his guilt.
After direct examination, the other side has the right to conduct a cross-examination. During the cross-examination, the attorney will try to discredit the witness to convince the jury that the witness is not credible. The attorney may probe into any potential biases the witness may have or try to prove that the witness’s recollection of events may not be as clear or certain as the witness believes. During cross-examination, attorneys frequently engage in asking leading questions, which is permitted.
Once the prosecution or plaintiff has called all its witnesses, and the witnesses have undergone direct and cross-examination, then the prosecution or plaintiff will rest its case. The defendant may make a motion for a directed verdict, arguing that no reasonable juror could possibly find in favor of the prosecution or plaintiff after hearing the evidence presented so far. This motion can be made anytime during the trial before the jury returns a verdict. The motion is typically denied, and the trial moves on to the defense phase. The defense will then present its witnesses, who are led through direct and cross-examination.
After the defense has rested its case, the attorneys once again address the jury in closing arguments. Here, the attorneys summarize the case for the jury. They address what witnesses were called and what the witnesses said. During closing arguments, the attorneys are permitted to be much more persuasive and argumentative than during the opening statement. They appeal to the jury’s emotions and argue how the jury should interpret the evidence before them.
Video Clip: Johnnie Cochran Delivers Closing Arguments
(click to see video)
After closing arguments are made, the judge in the case charges the jury by giving the jury its instructions. The instructions acquaint the jury with the relevant law. The jury then retires to deliberate. During deliberations, the jury will decide first what facts it believes to be true. Then it will apply those facts to the law as outlined in the jury instructions. In a trial against your vehicle’s manufacturer, for example, the judge may explain to the jury what is legally required for a product to be considered defective so that the jury can make a determination, based on the evidence presented, whether or not there is any liability.
Central to the jury’s deliberations is the burden of proof applicable to the case. In criminal trials, the prosecution always carries the burden of proof. That burden is to prove the defendant committed all the elements required in the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If any member of the jury has any reasonable doubts about the defendant’s guilt or innocence, then the only appropriate verdict is not guilty. Many people confuse the burden with “without a doubt.” Jurors may have doubts, but the only question for the jurors is whether they have any reasonable doubts. This standard is deliberately set high because of the severe sanctions and penalties that follow a criminal conviction. In a criminal trial, the defense only has to prove reasonable doubt exists and has no burden of proof at all. That is why in criminal trials, the defense may strategically decide to not call any witnesses and to rest its case strictly on creating doubt by cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses.
In civil cases the burden of proof is preponderance of the evidence. This standard requires the scales of justice to tilt ever so slightly toward one party to declare that party the winner. If the jury believes one side is 51 percent correct and the other is 49 percent correct, that is enough to declare a winner. It is a much easier standard to win, because it only requires a party to prove that its side is more likely than not telling the truth. In a civil liability suit against your vehicle’s manufacturer, your burden is to convince the jury that more likely than not, your vehicle was somehow defective. Sometimes it’s possible for a jury in a criminal trial to find the defendant not guilty, while a separate jury in a civil case applying a lower burden of proof finds the defendant liable for the same act. This is what happened to O. J. Simpson when he was tried for the murder of his wife.
During jury deliberations, the jurors are permitted to ask the judge for clarification about the law and to request to see the evidence again. If the jury is unable to come to a verdict, the jury is said to be deadlocked, and a mistrial results. Since trials are expensive and time consuming, the judge will usually instruct the jury to try its best before giving up. If the jury does arrive at a decision, it is called a verdict.
Once the jury delivers its verdict, the losing side typically makes a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In this motion, the party is arguing that the jury arrived at the wrong verdict and that no reasonable jury could have arrived at that verdict. The judge typically will not grant this verdict. Even if the judge believes that the jury arrived at the wrong factual conclusion, the judge is not permitted to substitute his or her judgment for that of the jury. If, however, the jury clearly ignored the law in arriving at its verdict in a criminal case, the judge may overrule the jury. This phenomenon is known as jury nullification.
If the judge denies the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, then the judge enters the jury’s verdict as a judgment. After that, the losing party has the right to file an appeal. Remember that on appeal, the appellate court is only reviewing the record for legal error and cannot call new witnesses or substitute its judgment on the facts for the jury’s. In the following excerpt, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg uses the trial record to make a point in her dissenting opinion in an important employment discrimination case involving gender discrimination. Although hers was a dissenting opinion and the plaintiff lost her case, Congress reacted to the decision by passing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first law signed by President Obama after he assumed office.
From 1979 to 1998, Lilly Ledbetter worked as a supervisor at Goodyear’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama. Over the course of her career, her pay slipped when compared to the pay of men of equal experience and seniority. She sued the company, alleging pay discrimination on the basis of her gender under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The law states that any lawsuit must be initiated within 180 days of the unlawful discriminatory act occurring. Ledbetter argued that each paycheck she received was an unlawful discriminatory act, so the fact that she filed her lawsuit within 180 days of her last paycheck means her lawsuit is within the time limit. Goodyear argued that the discriminatory act was the decision to pay her less, which took place many years ago and that therefore her lawsuit is too late. In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Goodyear’s favor. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg returns to the trial record to make her point that Ledbetter is the victim of unlawful discrimination. The following is from the dissenting opinion:
Specifically, Ledbetter’s evidence demonstrated that her current pay was discriminatorily low due to a long series of decisions reflecting Goodyear’s pervasive discrimination against women managers in general and Ledbetter in particular. Ledbetter’s former supervisor, for example, admitted to the jury that Ledbetter’s pay, during a particular one-year period, fell below Goodyear’s minimum threshold for her position. Although Goodyear claimed the pay disparity was due to poor performance, the supervisor acknowledged that Ledbetter received a “Top Performance Award” in 1996. The jury also heard testimony that another supervisor—who evaluated Ledbetter in 1997 and whose evaluation led to her most recent raise denial—was openly biased against women. And two women who had previously worked as managers at the plant told the jury they had been subject to pervasive discrimination and were paid less than their male counterparts. One was paid less than the men she supervised. Ledbetter herself testified about the discriminatory animus conveyed to her by plant officials. Toward the end of her career, for instance, the plant manager told Ledbetter that the “plant did not need women, that [women] didn’t help it, [and] caused problems.” After weighing all the evidence, the jury found for Ledbetter, concluding that the pay disparity was due to intentional discrimination.
Once all appeals are exhausted, the winner in litigation can finally collect whatever damages it is entitled to. This process is called execution. If the loser is unable or unwilling to pay the judgment, the winner can petition the court to use its full legal resources, including asking the sheriff to seize the loser’s assets for sale, to satisfy the judgment. The winner can also ask that the loser’s wages be garnished until the judgment is satisfied. The loser in litigation cannot refile a civil lawsuit once it has been decided under the doctrine of res judicata. Just like criminal cases cannot be retried after acquittal under the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution, res judicata operates as a bar to relitigation.
The process of selecting a jury is called voir dire. Each side is permitted to question a potential juror and excuse that juror for any reason through a peremptory challenge or for a good reason through a for cause challenge. A trial begins with opening statements where the parties lay out the essential facts of their case. Next, witnesses are called to provide testimonial evidence. The side calling the witness conducts a direct examination, while the opposing side conducts a cross-examination. After all witnesses are called, the parties make closing arguments to the jury, which then deliberates and applies the law as outlined in the jury instructions. The burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while the burden of proof in a civil case is “preponderance of evidence.” A jury’s verdict must be converted into a legal judgment by the trial judge. Once all appeals are settled, res judicata prevents the case from being tried again.
- Why would a jury engage in jury nullification? If a jury cannot engage in nullification, what are its alternatives to express a similar view?
- One of President Obama’s first acts as president was to sign into law a statute aimed at overturning the Ledbetter decision. How can Congress overturn the Supreme Court in this instance?
- Although litigation is rightfully criticized as slow and expensive, res judicata means the parties have only one chance to “get it right.” Do you think relaxing the rules of res judicata would help with the expense and time involved in litigating cases?