Criminal Trials


One of the most vaguely understood events in the United States is the modern criminal trial. Most people have a faint knowledge of the goings-on of criminal proceedings, mainly due to what is seen on television, but the person who knows the real course of a trial is rare. However, there is nothing mysterious about the events that determine criminal guilt. Trials are carefully orchestrated, following procedures that have been laid in legal concrete over the years, and generally follow the same basic format across the United States.


Criminal law is distinguishable from civil law in the aspect that criminal acts are officially considered to injure not only individuals, but society as a whole. This is the reason why criminal cases are described as state v. offender. The state, as the injured party, is taking the defendant to court (Schmalleger 64). The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine if the offender is legally guilty of the crime, but this does not necessarily mean that the person in question committed the crime. As opposed to factual guilt (the person ‘did it’), legal guilt merely means that a jury of the defendant’s peers is convinced without reasonable doubt. As can be seen, this leaves room for possible discrepancies (Schmalleger 198).


Before a trial can proceed, certain events must take place. The first is the arraignment of the defendant, which can happen anytime between arrest and a logical, non-specific time before the trial itself. Arraignment consists of the court reading to the defendant the substance of the charge, and calls on the subject to enter a plea within a given time (Tull 1).


The defendant may consult with and be advised by an attorney on what plea to offer the court. He may plead guilty or no contest (nolo contendere), in which case a trial does not occur and the subject goes directly to a sentencing hearing (Tull 1), or he may plead not guilty, and trial preparations will proceed. In very rare cases the defendant will not enter a plea, and is said to ‘stand mute’ (Schmalleger 189). Directly after entering a plea of not guilty, the defendant must decide on one, if any, of many courses of defense to follow. A plea of guilty or no contest that is withdrawn by the defendant cannot be used as evidence against the defendant (Tull 3).


One of the most popular defenses is the alibi defense. This course of action holds that the defendant was at another location at the time of the offense, and therefore could not possibly have committed the crime. If an alibi is to be offered, the defendant has a court-appointed time in which he must declare his intentions. The attorney for the state will send a notice describing the time, date, and place of the offense, and the defendant must refute this information. If the defendant issues notice of alibi but then withdraws the claim, this information cannot be held against him later in court (Tull 5).


Another popular defense is the insanity defense. The court definition holds that “a person should not be guilty if they did not know what they were doing, did not know that what they were doing was wrong, or if their actions were the result of a mental disease or defect” (Schmalleger 75). This obviously covers a lot of area, which is part of the reason for its popularity. If the defendant plans to claim insanity, he must notify, in writing, the state’s attorney of his intentions, and also file a copy with the court clerk. Failure to follow these guidelines results in the disallowance of the insanity claim. A withdrawn claim of insanity is not admissible as evidence against the defendant (Tull 5).


There are many other defenses, divided into three categories, that are much less common than alibi and insanity. The first of these categories is designated ‘other defenses.’ The following are examples of these. ‘Temporary Insanity’ implies that the defendant was only insane at the time of the offense, and was once a very popular defense, as the defendant usually got off “scot-free”. However, due to recent restrictions, it has lost its appeal. ‘Guilty but Insane,’ a defense that is all but extinct, resulted in a stiff penalty, but mandatory