What Actually Happens at a Criminal Trial

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If you’ve ever watched Law and Order or another crime television drama, you’ve seen countless trials. Exciting things happen like lawyers yelling “I object” or witnesses getting angry and being hauled out of the courtroom. Sure, the TV dramas capture your attention, but what actually happens at trial in a Municipal, District, or Superior Court in Washington?

Voir Dire or Jury Selection

This is where the prosecutor and defense attorney pick the jurors. The prosecutor and defense attorney each have a time limit to ask the jurors questions to help them determine who they want on their jury. These questions can be open ended or targeted at specific jurors. The questions usually hint to the theme of the case or try to highlight biases that the jurors might have or misconceptions about the criminal justice system.

The prosecutor and defense attorney then have a certain number of “challenges” to kick the jurors off of the panel. These two challenges are called Peremptory challenges and challenges for Cause. Peremptory challenges can be used for any reason, as long as that reason is related to the attorney’s view concerning the outcome of the case. Challenges for Cause mean that the attorney has a stated reason for dismissing a juror such as the juror having a particular bias, prejudice, or prior knowledge of the case.

Since 1879, the US Supreme Court has said that racial discrimination when picking jurors violates the Constitution. Batson v. Kentucky was a key case for this.

Interestingly, this is still an issue today. A Mississippi prosecutor went to trial 6 times trying to convict a black man named Curtis Flowers for murder. From the time that Mr. Flowers was charged until today, 23 years have passed. The defendant had no criminal history, there were no witnesses to pinpoint Mr. Flowers as the suspect, and there was no physical evidence that connected him to the murder. Due to this lack of evidence, (using the peremptory challenges) the prosecutor tried to exclude the potential jurors who were black. The Supreme is now hearing the case to decide whether or not that prosecutor’s challenges violated the Constitution.


This is where the prosecutor and defense attorney have the chance to present to you their side of the story. In other words, they will briefly explain to you the evidence that they expect you to hear. You’ll finally be introduced to what the case is about and get a summary about the witnesses.


First, the prosecutor will get the chance to put on their case. They will call their witnesses, and the defense attorney will have the opportunity to cross examine their witnesses. Cross examine just means “a formal interrogation of a witness called by the other party in a court of law to challenge or extend testimony already given.”

Contrary to popular belief, the defense attorney, then, doesn’t even have to explain their side of the story. This is because the burden is on the prosecutor only to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defense attorney chooses to put on evidence and call witnesses, then the prosecutor will have the opportunity to cross examine those witnesses.

The defendant also does not have to testify. If you are charged with a crime, you can discuss with your attorney if testifying is the right move for your case.

Jury Instructions

This is the most boring part of the trial. A set of jury instructions will be read by the Judge and then provided to the jurors. These are the laws and guidelines that the jurors must follow when making their decision about whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.


“If it doesn’t fit, your must acquit.” These were the famous words that Johnnie Cochran spoke during his closing arguments at O. J. Simpson’s trial. The closing statement is where the prosecutor and defense attorney give a speech to summarize all of the evidence and witness testimony presented at trial. This is where all the puzzle pieces are connected and each side makes their argument for why the defendant is guilty or not guilty.


At the end of the trial, the jurors go back into a room and “deliberate”, meaning they discuss the case to decide the outcome. Once they have made their decision, they come back before the prosecutor, judge, defense attorney, and defendant, and tell the court whether they find the defendant guilty or not guilty.

As you can see, trials are more complex then the crime dramas make them out to be. For every trial Horwath Law takes on we thoroughly prepare with a multi-attorney team including investigators and legal assistants. Our preparation and experience is why we win significantly more trials than we lose. Last year our team won over 70% of our criminal trials and owner Angela Horwath avoided a conviction on every single trial she handled. If you need an experienced criminal defense trial attorney contact Horwath Law.


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State v. Saintcalle, 178 Wn.2d 34, 43, 309 P.3d 326, 333 (2013)

Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 89, 106 S. Ct. 1712, 1719, 90 L.Ed.2d 69, 82-83 (1986)