At trial, the first order of business is to select a jury. (In a civil case of any consequence, either party can request one, based on the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.) The judge and sometimes the lawyers are permitted to question the jurors to be sure that they are unbiased. This questioning is known as the voir dire (pronounced vwahr-DEER). This is an important process, and a great deal of thought goes into selecting the jury, especially in high-profile cases. A jury panel can be as few as six persons, or as many as twelve, with alternates selected and sitting in court in case one of the jurors is unable to continue. In a long trial, having alternates is essential; even in shorter trials, most courts will have at least two alternate jurors.
In both criminal and civil trials, each side has opportunities to challenge potential jurors for cause. For example, in the Robinsons’ case against Audi, the attorneys representing Audi will want to know if any prospective jurors have ever owned an Audi, what their experience has been, and if they had a similar problem (or worse) with their Audi that was not resolved to their satisfaction. If so, the defense attorney could well believe that such a juror has a potential for a bias against her client. In that case, she could use a challenge for cause, explaining to the judge the basis for her challenge. The judge, at her discretion, could either accept the for-cause reason or reject it.
Even if an attorney cannot articulate a for-cause reason acceptable to the judge, he may use one of several peremptory challenges that most states (and the federal system) allow. A trial attorney with many years of experience may have a sixth sense about a potential juror and, in consultation with the client, may decide to use a peremptory challenge to avoid having that juror on the panel.
After the jury is sworn and seated, the plaintiff’s lawyer makes an opening statement, laying out the nature of the plaintiff’s claim, the facts of the case as the plaintiff sees them, and the evidence that the lawyer will present. The defendant’s lawyer may also make an opening statement or may reserve his right to do so at the end of the plaintiff’s case.
The plaintiff’s lawyer then calls witnesses and presents the physical evidence that is relevant to her proof. The direct testimony at trial is usually far from a smooth narration. The rules of evidence (that govern the kinds of testimony and documents that may be introduced at trial) and the question-and-answer format tend to make the presentation of evidence choppy and difficult to follow.
Anyone who has watched an actual televised trial or a television melodrama featuring a trial scene will appreciate the nature of the trial itself: witnesses are asked questions about a number of issues that may or may not be related, the opposing lawyer will frequently object to the question or the form in which it is asked, and the jury may be sent from the room while the lawyers argue at the bench before the judge.
After direct testimony of each witness is over, the opposing lawyer may conduct cross-examination. This is a crucial constitutional right; in criminal cases it is preserved in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment (the right to confront one’s accusers in open court). The formal rules of direct testimony are then relaxed, and the cross-examiner may probe the witness more informally, asking questions that may not seem immediately relevant. This is when the opposing attorney may become harsh, casting doubt on a witness’s credibility, trying to trip her up and show that the answers she gave are false or not to be trusted. This use of cross-examination, along with the requirement that the witness must respond to questions that are at all relevant to the questions raised by the case, distinguishes common-law courts from those of authoritarian regimes around the world.
Following cross-examination, the plaintiff’s lawyer may then question the witness again: this is called redirect examination and is used to demonstrate that the witness’s original answers were accurate and to show that any implications otherwise, suggested by the cross-examiner, were unwarranted. The cross-examiner may then engage the witness in re-cross-examination, and so on. The process usually stops after cross-examination or redirect.
During the trial, the judge’s chief responsibility is to see that the trial is fair to both sides. One big piece of that responsibility is to rule on the admissibility of evidence. A judge may rule that a particular question is out of order—that is, not relevant or appropriate—or that a given document is irrelevant. Where the attorney is convinced that a particular witness, a particular question, or a particular document (or part thereof) is critical to her case, she may preserve an objection to the court’s ruling by saying “exception,” in which case the court stenographer will note the exception; on appeal, the attorney may cite any number of exceptions as adding up to the lack of a fair trial for her client and may request a court of appeals to order a retrial.
For the most part, courts of appeal will not reverse and remand for a new trial unless the trial court judge’s errors are “prejudicial,” or “an abuse of discretion.” In short, neither party is entitled to a perfect trial, but only to a fair trial, one in which the trial judge has made only “harmless errors” and not prejudicial ones.
At the end of the plaintiff’s case, the defendant presents his case, following the same procedure just outlined. The plaintiff is then entitled to present rebuttal witnesses, if necessary, to deny or argue with the evidence the defendant has introduced. The defendant in turn may present “surrebuttal” witnesses.
When all testimony has been introduced, either party may ask the judge for a directed verdict—a verdict decided by the judge without advice from the jury. This motion may be granted if the plaintiff has failed to introduce evidence that is legally sufficient to meet her burden of proof or if the defendant has failed to do the same on issues on which she has the burden of proof. (For example, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant owes him money and introduces a signed promissory note. The defendant cannot show that the note is invalid. The defendant must lose the case unless he can show that the debt has been paid or otherwise discharged.)
The defendant can move for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case, but the judge will usually wait to hear the entire case until deciding whether to do so. Directed verdicts are not usually granted, since it is the jury’s job to determine the facts in dispute.
If the judge refuses to grant a directed verdict, each lawyer will then present a closing argument to the jury (or, if there is no jury, to the judge alone). The closing argument is used to tie up the loose ends, as the attorney tries to bring together various seemingly unrelated facts into a story that will make sense to the jury.
After closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury. The purpose of jury instruction is to explain to the jurors the meaning of the law as it relates to the issues they are considering and to tell the jurors what facts they must determine if they are to give a verdict for one party or the other. Each lawyer will have prepared a set of written instructions that she hopes the judge will give to the jury. These will be tailored to advance her client’s case. Many a verdict has been overturned on appeal because a trial judge has wrongly instructed the jury. The judge will carefully determine which instructions to give and often will use a set of pattern instructions provided by the state bar association or the supreme court of the state.
These pattern jury instructions are often safer because they are patterned after language that appellate courts have used previously, and appellate courts are less likely to find reversible error in the instructions.
After all instructions are given, the jury will retire to a private room and discuss the case and the answers requested by the judge for as long as it takes to reach a unanimous verdict. Some minor cases do not require a unanimous verdict. If the jury cannot reach a decision, this is called a hung jury, and the case will have to be retried. When a jury does reach a verdict, it delivers it in court with both parties and their lawyers present. The jury is then discharged, and control over the case returns to the judge. (If there is no jury, the judge will usually announce in a written opinion his findings of fact and how the law applies to those facts. Juries just announce their verdicts and do not state their reasons for reaching them.)