Stages of the Trial


A trial generally proceeds as follows.

The OPENING STATEMENT of the lawyers: In a civil case, the lawyer (or in complicated cases, several lawyers) for the plaintiff begins by giving the jury a preview of what they expect to prove and to recover.

In a criminal case, the state's attorney or attorney general will make the opening statement, explaining the charge and the case against the defendant. The lawyer for the defendant (or accused) may either give an opening statement or reserve it until the state rests it case against the accused.


PLAINTIFF'S EVIDENCE: After the opening statements, the plaintiff's lawyer (or in a criminal case, the state's or city attorney or attorney general) will call witnesses, each of whom will take an oath and give testimony. During the examination (questioning of witnesses), exhibits (such as writings,photographs, plans) may be offered as evidence in the trial. If the judge rules the exhibits are to be received into evidence, jurors may examine them and they will be taken into the jury room during deliberation. Under certain circumstances, jurors may, under court supervision, leave the courtroom to look at a particular site or object.

When examining a witness, the plaintiff's lawyer asks the questions first, and this is called DIRECT EXAMINATION. The defendant's lawyer then CROSS-EXAMINES the witness. Generally, cross-examination is limited to questions concerning matters brought up in direct examination.

After cross-examination, the plaintiff's lawyer may again question the witness (this is called REDIRECT), and this may be followed by recross examination.

This process of examining and cross-examining witnesses and receiving exhibits continues until the plaintiff's evidence is before the jury. At this time, the plaintiff's lawyer will state to the court, "Plaintiff rests." In criminal case, the state's or city attorney or attorney general says, "The state (or city) rests."


DEFENDANT'S EVIDENCE: After the plaintiff has rested, the defendant calls witnesses to defend against the claim of the plaintiff. if there is a counterclaim, witnesses proving the counterclaim may also be called.

The defendant's lawyer examines the witnesses first on direct examination, then the plaintiff's lawyer cross-examines. The defendant's case continues in essentially the same manner as the plaintiff's until the defendant's lawyer states to the court, "Defendant rests."

According to federal and state constitutions, the defendant in a criminal case is not required to testify or offer any evidence in defense of the charge against the defense.


PLAINTIFF'S REBUTTAL EVIDENCE: The plaintiff may call witnesses to respond to testimony given in the defendant's case. This is called REBUTTAL.


PREPARATION OF INSTRUCTIONS: After both parties have rested, there is usually a recess while the judge, with assistance of the lawyers involved, prepares instructions for the jury.


CHARGE TO THE JURY: After the instructions have been prepared, the judge, jurors, lawyers and parties reassemble in the courtroom for the charge to the jury, in which the judge reads the instructions to the jury.

These instructions tell the jury what the law is concerning this particular case. THE JURY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR DETERMINING THE FACTS OF THE CASE. THE COURT AT ALL TIMES DETERMINES THE LAW.


ARGUMENT: The case is then argued by lawyers for the parties. In this argument, the lawyers review the testimony and usually state their respective theories of the case to the jury. The plaintiff's lawyer begins the argument and is followed by the lawyer for the defendant. Each side is entitled to the same amount of time (set by the judge) to argue, although the plaintiff has the privilege of dividing the time and making a CONCLUDING ARGUMENT.

DELIBERATION: Court bailiffs are sworn to take charge of the jury which withdraws to a private place to decide the issues. Jurors take with them their recollection of the testimony of the witnesses, the exhibits introduced at the trial and a copy of the court's instructions. The jury returns to the courtroom after having reached a verdict.


DECISION: The court's instructions tell the jury how many of them must agree to reach a decision. After a decision has been reached, or if agreement is impossible, the jury returns to court.

In a criminal case, the judge will ask the jury if a verdict has been reached. The foreperson will state orally that the defendant was found guilty or not guilty of the various charges, or that the jury cannot agree on a verdict.

In a civil case, the foreperson will have completed and signed a written form stating the verdict, unless agreement was not reached. The foreperson hands it to the clerk who reads it in open court.

Either side may then request that the jury be POLLED. This means that each juror must state orally whether they voted for or against the majority decision.


Information       Courthouses       Coping with Stress       SD Unified Judicial System      
Juror Questionnaire       Home