The purpose of a criminal trial is to outline the circumstances surrounding a crime and establish the facts so that the jury can reach a verdict.
A trial will generally follow these steps:
- Choosing a jury
- Opening Statements
- Witness Testimony and Cross-Examination
- Closing Arguments
- Judge gives instruction to Jury
- Jury Deliberation and Verdict
You can read about jury selection in the jury information page.
Prior to the trial, the prosecution must furnish the defence with a Book of Evidence, which sets out the evidence they intend to present in the case against the defendant (the person on trial).
The trial begins with the indictment – a summary of the charge(s) against the defendant - being read out by the court registrar (see the Who is in the Courtroom page for an explanation of the role of each party in a case). An opening speech is then made by the prosecution, possibly followed by an opening statement by the defence.
The case for the prosecution
Prosecution counsel will open the case by telling the jury about matters that the prosecution intends to prove. S(he) gives an outline of the facts from the prosecution’s perspective in order to show the jury what the defendant did, how, and why.
After the opening address the prosecution will call and question witnesses - this is called 'examination-in-chief'. Counsel will ask the witnesses questions to allow them to tell their story and give their evidence in their own words. Documents and statements may be introduced. Forensic evidence may be introduced as exhibits (such as items of clothing, documents or weapons).
Often the witness was present when the offence was committed, either as the victim or as a bystander. A witness may be also be a garda giving details of the arrest, a doctor giving medical evidence or a forensic officer reporting the findings. Some trials have expert witnesses (e.g. the State or Assistant State Pathologist). These are professional people who are asked to give their expert opinion on specific evidence.
When the prosecution has finished, the defence has the opportunity to question each witness, to find any weaknesses or contradictions in their evidence – this is called cross-examination. If the defence intends to challenge a prosecution witness’ evidence, the defence counsel must explain the basis for the challenge to the witness
The case for the defence
Once all the prosecution witnesses have been questioned, cross-examined and, if necessary, re-examined by the prosecution, the defence will begin. The defence counsel will open the defence - in a criminal trial the accused is presumed innocent and the defence may choose not to call witnesses or present evidence.
It is up to the prosecution to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt (the burden of proof). The defence must merely show that there are circumstances where doubt can be cast on the prosecution case. This means in effect that if there are other possible reasons for what occurred, then the jury should give the accused the benefit of the doubt.
The judge presides over the trial and is the decision maker when any legal issues arise. S(he) may intervene at any time during the trial to halt irrelevant questioning or argument, or to clarify issues. The judge will also rule when the prosecution or defence object to lines of questioning. It is for the judge, to decide on points of law. Sometimes the jury is asked to leave the court while these legal arguments are discussed by the judge and counsel.
Closing speeches by the prosecution and the defence
Once they have had an opportunity to present their case and to challenge the evidence presented by the other, both sides "rest," meaning that no more evidence will be presented to the jury before closing arguments are made. This involves summarising the facts for the jury and to emphasise the merits of their respective cases.
Summing up and direction by the judge
At the end of the trial, the judge will explain the law to the jury and summarise the facts of the case. The judge will give directions about the duties of the jury before they are sent to deliberate and consider a verdict. The jury will be directed to confine itself only to the evidence presented in court.
If the verdict is guilty, this will be followed by sentencing, possibly at a later date. The judge will decide what sentence to impose. If found not guilty, the defendant is acquitted.