What Happens During a Criminal Trial in Utah?

Being arrested and charged with a crime is a traumatizing experience, both for the suspect and their loved ones.  While it’s natural to feel nervous about what may happen in the days to come, knowing what to expect during trial can help put your mind at ease.  In this blog post, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain what generally takes place during a criminal trial in Utah, including the stages of the legal process leading up to the trial itself.

How Court Works: Stages of Criminal Procedure

Movies and TV shows often make it seem as though suspects go straight to trial after being arrested. In reality, the defendant must go through multiple hearings and court appearances before the trial itself takes place.

The first hearing after the arrest is referred as the initial hearing or arraignment.  The main purpose of arraignment is to formally announce the charges to the defendant.

If the charge is a misdemeanor, like misdemeanor drug possession, the defendant will enter a plea.  If the charge is a felony, like murder, the defendant will enter their plea later during the preliminary hearing.  The judge may also set bail at this stage, provided the defendant is eligible.  The charges may be dropped or dismissed at this stage.

The next stage after the arraignment is the preliminary hearing or “prelim.”  The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether the arresting officer truly had probable cause in making the arrest, and in turn, whether the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to proceed with the case.

If no probable cause is found, then in accordance with Rule 5.1(f) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, “the magistrate judge must dismiss the complaint and discharge the defendant.”  This stage is also when defendants charged with felonies enter their plea.

If the defendant pleads guilty, he or she will be sentenced accordingly.  A plea bargain for a lighter sentence may be reached with the prosecution.  If the defendant enters a plea of not guilty, then a trial must be held.

However, the trial is preceded by a pre-trial conference, where the judge meets with the defense and prosecution to go over details and prepare the case to go as smoothly as possible.  Both attorneys may also file pre-trial “motions” asking the judge to suppress evidence or allow for “discovery” of more information.

While the process from arrest to preliminary hearing may be pretty quick (only a few days or weeks), the time between the preliminary hearing and end of a trial can take some time (maybe even more than a year if it is a difficult case).  During that time, each side will gather evidence, talk to witnesses, and plan for trial.  There will also likely be the possibility to negotiate a guilty plea during that period, and during the rest of the trial, up until the point when the jury renders its verdict.

During this time, the prosecution turns over evidence in a process called “discovery.”  Trials in the United States are meant to be battles of facts and evidence, not a matter of surprise.  Because of this, the prosecution is required by law to turn over certain materials to the defense, so they know what will be happening and can adequately defend against it.  Keeping certain materials from the defense is unconstitutional and can result in overturning a conviction, getting the defendant a new trial.

The defense’s largest task during this period is seeking to have evidence or witnesses blocked from trial.  This is called “suppression,” and both sides are able to file motions to suppress before a jury is even selected.  This ensures that the jury does not see unfair or irrelevant evidence that may taint the trial.  The availability of certain pieces of evidence may be crucial in deciding whether the defense should accept a plea bargain or whether the prosecution should drop charges.

The Trial Process in Utah

Court house

Believe it or not, the majority of criminal cases never reach the trial stage.  In its “Criminal Cases” overview, the federal judiciary itself reports that during arraignment, the very first stage of the process, “Most defendants — more than 90% — plead guilty rather than go to trial.” However, that still means about one in ten cases do culminate in trial proceedings.

So then what happens?

In Utah, as in most states, the trial process has many parts:

  • Jury Selection Juries are supposed to be impartial, but people aren’t computers and will always carry their own opinions and beliefs.  Each side will have the opportunity to question and remove witnesses that might be biased, and some are allowed to be removed simply by the defendant’s preference.  Jury selection sometimes occurs before the actual day the trial starts, but is an important part of the beginning of a trial.  Note that, while twelve is the typical number of jurors, alternates are often selected to sit through the entire trial in case a juror is sick or unable to come to court.
  • Opening Statements Each side is given the opportunity for their attorneys to speak directly to the jury, with the prosecution going first.  They explain their theories of the case and how the facts will fit together.  This is the only time until the end of the trial that the lawyers are allowed to speak directly to the jury – unlike most of what you may see on TV.  Additionally, these are called “opening statements” – that means that they are merely statements, and no argument is allowed.
  • Prosecution’s Case in ChiefThis part takes up most of the trial.  The prosecution will call witnesses and present evidence to try and prove that the defendant committed the crime as charged.  When questioning a witness, prosecutors try to get witnesses to tell the story so the jurors can understand it.  During the prosecution’s questioning, called “direct examination,” the defense is allowed to object to evidence or questions, and the judge may limit what the prosecution can present to the jury.  After each direct examination of witnesses by the prosecution, the defense is allowed to “cross examine” witnesses.  This allows them to use pointed yes or no questions to try and reshape the prosecution’s story.  At the end of this, the prosecution “rests.”
  • Motion to DismissAfter the prosecution is done presenting their case, the defense attorney should make a “motion to dismiss.”  This argues that, even if the prosecution’s side of the story was 100% accurate, the prosecution has not shown that the defendant committed the crime.  This could happen if, for instance, the prosecution forgot to prove a necessary element of the crime.  If the motion is granted, the trial ends and the defendant is “acquitted” of the crime and wins the trial.  If the motion is denied, the trial continues – which is usually what happens.
  • Defense Case in Chief
    After a motion for summary judgment is denied, the defense and the prosecution switch what they were doing.  The defense now gets a chance to call its own witnesses and present its own evidence to show that the defendant did not commit the crime as charged.  Now the defense does direct examinations and the prosecution gets to cross examine witnesses and make objections.  Often, defense attorneys will present very few witnesses or they will not present any witnesses or evidence at all.  The heart of the defense’s case is really in its cross examination, not its case in chief.
  • Rebuttal
    This part can get a little confusing.  Even though the prosecution already “rested” and finished their case, they do get a chance to add more, if necessary.  This is a chance for the prosecution to recall witnesses or call new witnesses to challenge what the defense presented in its case in chief.  It should be brief and focused on challenging the defense’s case, not focused on adding a lot of new information or going back to evidence the prosecution forgot about in their case.  If there was no defense case in chief, there cannot be a rebuttal.  Additionally, if the prosecution takes advantage of a rebuttal, the defense will sometimes be granted another chance, too, called a “surrebuttal.”
  • Jury Instructions At this stage, the judge tells the jury which laws are relevant to the case.  The judge explains the required elements of the case and relevant definitions that the jury will need to decide whether or not the prosecution met its burden.  Additionally, the judge will explain the prosecution’s burden: to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime.  Be prepared for this part to be somewhat boring and long.
  • Closing Arguments

    After jury instructions, each side gets a chance to stand up and directly address the jury again.  These are called “closing arguments” because each side is allowed to reiterate facts that were introduced at trial and argue how they fit together.  If witness examination is like showing the jury a bunch of puzzle pieces, the closing argument is showing them how to put the puzzle together.  The prosecution gets the last word to the jury, and the trial ends.
  • Jury DeliberationsAfter closing arguments, the jury goes into a separate room to discuss the case.  The defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Depending on the complexity and length of the trial, this could take some time.  Jurors may also, during this time, ask for pieces of evidence to be sent back, or for parts of the transcript to be read back to them.
  • Delivery of Verdict The defendant can choose if they’d like to be present in the room when the verdict is read.  In criminal trials, 100% of the jury must agree on a unanimous decision.  Otherwise, the judge can call a “hung” or undecided jury, at which point there must be a new trial with a new jury. There are four possible verdicts:
    • Guilty
    • Guilty and Mentally Ill
    • Not Guilty
    • Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity
  • Judgment and Sentencing Sentencing generally must be passed two to forty-five days from the conviction, though the defendant can waive that time-frame and be sentenced the very same day.  The actual process of sentencing often involves reports from officers of the court and recommended sentences from each side.  If, as part of a plea agreement, the prosecution promised to recommend a certain sentence, this is when they recommend it to the judge.  Judges may hear any evidence, regardless of relevancy or rules of evidence, in determining the sentence.  Much of the guesswork is taken out of sentencing, though, as many statutes create minimum and maximum sentences that judges typically do not ignore.

While high-profile celebrity trials with lots of media coverage often seem to take years, many trials are concluded in a matter of weeks or less.  The federal judiciary reports that from September 2013 to September 2014, Utah had 49 completed criminal trials in total — 37 of which concluded in a single day.  In fact, the longest completed Utah trial during that time period lasted only nine days.

A Skilled Salt Lake City Criminal Lawyer Can Help You Navigate Your Case

If you or someone you love has been arrested in Utah, it’s extremely important to have aggressive and experienced legal representation on your side.  To set up a free, confidential case evaluation, call Utah criminal defense attorney Darwin Overson right away at (801) 758-2287.  Our phone lines are always open, and we can make jail cell visits in case of emergencies.