The Steps of a Criminal Trial

Get a free consultation now
The Steps of a Criminal Trial

If you find yourself as a defendant in the criminal justice system, you’ll want to understand the stages that your case will progress through following your arrest and leading up to and during a trial. This will allow you to go through the process with a better idea of what to expect. 

The Arrest

The arrest marks the beginning of your journey through the criminal justice system. When law enforcement takes you into custody, you will be taken to a police station for processing. From here, your journey to the courtroom begins.



At the arraignment, which is typically your initial appearance in court following your arrest and booking, you will learn the charges against you and what your rights are – like your right to hire a lawyer or be appointed one free of charge if you can’t afford one.

The judge will also address bail, which will determine if you’ll be released while your case is pending or if you must remain in custody. Bail could involve a cash amount that needs to be paid or other conditions that must be met for release, such as house arrest or electronic monitoring. In other cases, you could be released on your own recognizance, meaning you don’t have to pay anything to get out.

Decisions regarding bail are influenced by factors like the severity of the charges, any previous criminal history, potential flight risk, and whether there is perceived danger to others in the community.

The Stages of a Criminal Trial in California

After the arraignment, there are several other pre-trial steps, like pre-trial conferences and motions hearings in some cases. Once the trial begins, it goes through multiple phases designed to uphold justice and fairness.

Jury Selection

One of the first stages is choosing a jury. The jury selection process, also known as “voir dire,” is where potential jurors are evaluated by both the defense attorney and prosecutor. During this stage, questions are asked to assess if individual members of the pool may have biases or preconceived notions that could impact their impartiality regarding your case. The goal here is ensuring an unbiased panel for a fair trial.

Opening Statements 

After a jury has been selected, the trial proceeds with opening statements. This is where both attorneys – the prosecutor and your criminal defense lawyer – present the roadmap of the case to jurors telling them what they should expect to hear throughout the trial and why your narrative should be believed.

The prosecution will go first, explaining what evidence they plan to introduce and how it connects directly with your alleged guilt. They’ll give a general narrative portraying why you should be found guilty of the charges against you.

Your defense attorney follows, outlining your side of the story and often focusing on the lack of prosecution evidence or pointing to alternate explanations for the facts at issue. They will emphasize your presumption of innocence and assert that the state must prove every element of its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Witness Testimony and Direct/Cross-Examination

After the opening statements, the prosecutor will call witnesses to the stand to testify about the alleged crime. This can include eyewitnesses, law enforcement officers involved in your arrest, or expert witnesses providing specialized or technical insight related to your charges. Each witness will be questioned by the prosecutor, which is known as direct examination.

Once the prosecution has finished questioning a witness, your defense lawyer gets an opportunity for cross-examination. This allows your lawyer to challenge their testimony.

After all prosecution witnesses have been called and questioned, it’s time for your defense team to present its own list of witnesses who offer evidence or testimony in support of your case. Much like the prosecution process, each witness brought forward by the defense is initially questioned through a direct examination and then cross-examined by the prosecutor. 

You Get to Decide if You’re Going to Testify

As a defendant, it’s your constitutional right to decide whether or not you’ll testify during the trial. You are protected by the Fifth Amendment from having to incriminate yourself, meaning you can’t be compelled to take the stand.

Your attorney will provide guidance on whether testifying could strengthen your position or if it would be better to stay quiet.

Closing Statements 

After both sides have presented their evidence and witnesses, the trial proceeds to closing statements.

In these final remarks to the jury, each attorney will summarize their key points, reinforce the evidence (or lack thereof) and arguments presented during the trial, and try to persuade the jury as to why their viewpoint is correct based on what was heard during the trial. 

Directions to the Jury

After closing statements, the judge delivers jury instructions. These directions guide jurors in their deliberation process. They will cover what legal standards they must apply when deciding whether you’re guilty. The instructions will also clarify that a guilty verdict must be based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Juror Deliberation 

Following the jury instructions, the jurors will deliberate in private to determine a verdict. During deliberations, jurors will carefully assess whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof. They’ll examine pieces of evidence, recall witness testimonies, review exhibits presented during the trial, and evaluate witness credibility to determine if there is any reasonable doubt regarding your guilt.

The Verdict

Following their deliberations, the jury will reconvene in the courtroom to present their decision – known as a verdict. In criminal cases, this verdict must be unanimous, meaning all jurors must agree that the defendant is either guilty or not guilty. 

If there isn’t a unanimous decision, the jury is considered hung – they are deadlocked and unable to come to an agreement. In these cases, the judge may declare a mistrial. 

When a mistrial occurs due to a hung jury, prosecutors must decide whether or not they should re-try the case with another pool of jurors.


If the jury reaches a unanimous verdict of guilty, the trial moves to the sentencing phase. Here, various factors are taken into account, like the severity of the charges, your criminal history, impact on the victims, and state sentencing guidelines. The judge presiding over your case will determine the appropriate sentence based on all these elements and anything else they deem relevant. 


In the event of a conviction, you may have the chance to file an appeal. If there were legal errors that you and your lawyer believe affected your trial’s outcome or if fundamental rights were deemed violated during any phase of the criminal process, bringing those concerns before an appellate court may be warranted.

An Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Can Guide You Through the Process and Represent You At Trial

Navigating a criminal trial can be complex and stressful. If you or someone you know is facing charges, it is essential to have a knowledgeable and experienced defense attorney by your side every step of the way – from the arrest to potential appeals. Ahmed & Sukaram, DUI and Criminal Defense Attorneys can help you, don’t hesitate to contact us today, at (650) 299-0500 to schedule a free consultation with a criminal defense lawyer in Redwood City, CA.

Call Now Button