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Process of a Maryland Federal Criminal Trial

A federal criminal trials start with an indictment or charge of some kind, at which point an arraignment is scheduled. An arraignment is when a judge calls a person into court to announce the charges against them and makes sure they received copies of their charging document. At an arraignment a judge will typically also advise the individual of their right to counsel, and determine if they have their own Maryland federal attorney or need a court appointed public defender to represent them.

Once the arraignment has taken place, additional hearing dates and deadlines are set including the deadline for the prosecution to turn over its discovery to the defense. At that point, other motions hearings are scheduled to make sure that discovery issues that occur during the discovery period about what is and is not admissible can be addressed before the matter is heard by a finder of fact.

Pre-Trial Motions

Pre-trial motions are motions designed to address the evidence involved in a particular case so that the parties, the prosecution, the defense, and the judge can discuss what is and is not appropriate for a finder of fact to hear at trial.

If something was the subject of an illegal search for example, that issue needs to be raised at a pre-trial hearing with the judge. The judge can determine if the jury or finder of fact at trial should be allowed to consider that evidence during the course of a trial. A judge might also determine what is and is not appropriate for a witness to testify to during the course of a trial. These pre-trial conferences are meetings to discuss the status of the case, motions, what proceedings should or should not take place, and what evidence should or should not be presented to a finder of fact at trial.

When Might a Pre-Trial Motion Be Filed?

Lawyers and prosecutors use pre-trial motions whenever they identify evidentiary issues that occur in a case that help them determine the appropriateness of the admissibility of that evidence in  court.

Usually, if an attorney identifies things or pieces of evidence they believe were obtained unlawfully, they make efforts to try to suppress the information so that the jury or a judge cannot hear about them during the course of trial or take them into consideration when making a determination about the government meeting its burden of proof in a case.

Opening Statements

Opening statements are an opportunity for the lawyers to tell the finder the fact, whether that is a judge or jury, where they believe the evidence is going to take them in the case. It is not evidence itself, but rather an argument for the jury about what they believe the case will show. Typically, the prosecutors argue why they believe the evidence the jury or the judge hears will prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense argues about things they believe are weaknesses during the course of the trial in the government’s case or what they believe the defense’s case might show.

Opening statements are extremely important for both sides in setting a framework to the finder of fact to allow them to see what lens they can look at the case through.

Who Gives The First Statement?

Usually, opening statements begin with the prosecutor making the first statement and the defense making the second opening statement in the case. The reason is because it is the government’s burden of proof to bring the case, so they get to speak first and they also get to speak last. They need to make the first opening statement, as well as a rebuttal to the defense’s closing argument at the end of trial.

Presentation of Evidence

Because it is always the prosecutor’s burden of proof, it is also the prosecutor’s burden to present their case first. The prosecutor presents all of the evidence and arguments to the finder of fact before the defense puts on their case. The defense is not required to put on a case at all since it is the prosecutor’s burden of proof.

Prosecutors present evidence and witnesses when they are presenting their case. During the course of their case, after each witness is presented and through that witness, evidence is presented, the defense has an opportunity to cross-examine each of those witnesses to ask their own questions. It is always the prosecutor’s burden of proof to present those witnesses. Whether the defense asks questions or not is entirely up to the defense.

Defense Side Presentation

After the prosecutors present their case, the defense has an opportunity to present a case. This may include calling witnesses of their own. The prosecutors have an opportunity to cross-examine the defense’s witnesses. The defense has an opportunity to present through those witnesses any evidence they choose to present.

The defense may also call witnesses to present their case and through those witnesses, attempt to present evidence as well. The prosecutors have an opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses and challenge any of the evidence. After the defense closes its case, the prosecutor can call rebuttal witnesses to respond to the witnesses presented by the defense during the course of its case.

Closing Statements

In closing arguments, also known as summation, each party has an opportunity to present to the finder of fact what they believe the evidence shows and what the finder of fact should find in a particular direction.

In any criminal proceeding, the prosecution always goes first in telling the finder of fact why they believe they have met their burden of proof in a particular case. After that, the defense has an opportunity to respond to the prosecutors’ arguments to tell the finder of fact why there are weaknesses in the government’s case and why they should not find in the government’s or in the prosecution’s favor.

After the defense’s response, the prosecutors have an opportunity to reply to the defense’s closing argument, since it is the prosecutor’s burden of proof. The defense does not have an opportunity after that to respond, so the prosecutors get the first word in the case by making the first opening statement and also the last word in the case by offering rebuttal to the closing argument.

Reaching a Verdict

A verdict can take any amount of time to reach. Judges typically do not put a time limit on a verdict depending on how long the jury needs to deliberate. If it is a bench trial, a judge can take time to deliver a verdict as well. The verdict can be immediate or the judge can offer an opportunity to review the matter, the facts, leave the bench, and come back after a period of time to deliver the verdict. A verdict can be immediate or could take several days or several weeks depending on the seriousness and length of the case.