If you’ve just been notified about a trial date, I imagine you are probably feeling two things: 1) scared, and 2) uncertain or confused. Many people do not know what happens during a jury trial, and I find with my own clients that there are a lot of misconceptions concerning what will occur in the courtroom. I blame Judge Judy, the writers of Law & Order, and the producers of John Grisham movies. Even worse, if the client is like my wife, they base their knowledge of the courtroom on Legally Blond and Legally Blond 2. This is wrong on many levels, the most basic level being that somebody actually made those movies and that Reese Witherspoon’s agent convinced her to do them.
Once your case is actually called for trial, the case will progress through several stages. People usually know that their lawyer is going to argue, the other guy’s lawyer is going to argue, and that the jury is going to make a decision. They also know that they have to testify, but I often find they know little else about what occurs. If you are one of these people, allow me to try to fix that.
Pre-Trial Motions. These motions can take a variety of forms and concern a variety of issues. Sometimes, the lawyers are trying to argue the exclusion of certain witnesses. Most of the time, they are trying to argue the exclusion of certain evidence or the mention of certain facts to the jury. These are called motions in limine, and are designed to prevent either side from mentioning or eliciting testimony concerning issues and circumstances that should not be considered by the jury. The reason lawyers make these motions instead of just waiting to yell out “Objection!” in the middle of testimony is that these motions are often based on items that are thought to be so prejudicial to one side or another that the jury will find them hard to forget and be influenced by them even if the objection is sustained. The most common motions in limine involve the mention of insurance during the course of the trial.
Voir Dire.Voir dire is a pretentious lawyer phrase for jury selection. The folks called for jury duty will be brought into the courtroom and both sides will question prospective jurors. Lawyers may seek to excuse certain jurors for cause, meaning that they feel the juror has demonstrated that they cannot be fair or cannot follow the law. There are an unlimited number of challenges a lawyer can make for cause. The lawyers may also seek to excuse certain jurors for other reasons. It could be they said something the lawyer doesn’t like for the case. These are called peremptory challenges; those in which the lawyer can excuse a juror for any reason, and each lawyer has eight of these challenges per case. Some lawyers treat jury selection like an inquisition. Good lawyers treat it like a conversation. The point is to discover how jurors feel about certain issues surrounding the case to ensure a fair trial can be had by both sides. The judge has wide discretion on how to let jury selection proceed. In automobile or personal injury cases, expect to hear the phrases “McDonald’s coffee” or “people trying to get something for nothing” to come up at some point.
Opening Statements. After the jury is selected and sworn in (empaneled), lawyers for both sides will present an opening statement to the jury. Some people call this “opening arguments,” but that term is misleading as an opening statement is meant to be a forecast of what the lawyer thinks the evidence will show, and not an argument or analysis of the facts and law. Under North Carolina’s General Rules of Practice, a lawyer can waive an opening statement, but I do not personally know of any who have done this.
Plaintiff’s Evidence. After opening statements, the plaintiff will present their evidence to the jury. This will take the form of admitting documents, photographs, and other items into the court’s record and will also include calling witnesses to testify. This may include the Plaintiff, the plaintiff’s coworkers/employers, doctors and other experts, etc.
Defendant’s Evidence. After the plaintiff rests their case (meaning they are done presenting their evidence), the defendant will put on their evidence. However, since the defendant does not have the burden of proof, they may chose to put on no evidence at all. This frequently occurs in minor impact soft tissue (MIST) cases as it is believe by many defense counsel to be good strategy because North Carolina court rules allow them to have the last argument in closings if they put on no evidence.
Charge Conference. After both sides have presented their evidence, the jury will be sent out of the courtroom and the judge will hold a charge conference. Both sides will confer with the judge on what law the jury should be instructed on at the end of the case.
Closing Arguments. The jury is brought back into the courtroom and both lawyers give their closing arguments to the jury. Attorneys have wide latitude when making their closing arguments, but are prohibited from becoming abusive during arguments.
Jury Instructions (Jury Charge). After closing arguments, the judge will read the instructions of law decided upon in the charge conference to the jury.
Jury Deliberations. The jury is sent back to the jury room and will select a foreperson. The jury will then begin their deliberations on the issues of the case. In the average automobile negligence case, the jury will be called upon to answer two issues: 1) Was the plaintiff injured by the negligence of the defendant?, and, if so, 2) What amount is the plaintiff entitled to recover for personal injury? Deliberations take as long as they take or until it is clear the jury will never reach a decision (hung jury). I have had a jury take as little as 2 minutes to reach a verdict. I have had juries take several days to reach a verdict. I have also had the unfortunate pleasure of having two juries hang; in these instances a mistrial is declared, a new trial date is assigned, and we start the process all over again with a new trial.
After the jury reaches a verdict, it will be announced by the Clerk and recorded. A judgment will then be entered and the case is over unless grounds for appeal have arisen throughout the course of the trial. There are also motions that are made a various stages of a trial, such as a motion of directed verdict. These motions are often routinely made not because there is substance behind the motion, but rather because the motion is required to be made at the close of both side’s evidence in order to preserve the defendant’s right to appeal in certain instances.
If you have been asking yourself, “what happens at a jury trial?” I’m hoping that you just have not yet asked your attorney the question. Trials can be complicated and require a certain skill set in order to be done successfully. If you are a pro se litigant about to go to trial, you may benefit from an experienced trial lawyer’s representation.
Disclaimer: The views of the author are his own. Nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. The author has modeled this post on Civil Superior Court, as this is the court division the author primarily practices in. The author apologizes if he accidentally offended fans of Legally Blond, Legally Blond 2, or Reese Witherspoon. It’s okay to like bad movies. The author is a fan of Aliens vs. Predators, and his wife frequently reminds him that this is a horrible movie.