Do you believe it’s March? In just two weeks, we’ll be ushering in spring! Time certainly has a way of moving right along, doesn’t it? There’s a progression of events and seasons — a natural flow, so to speak. The legal world, with all its intricacies, also has a flow. If you recall, a few months ago we were walking together through the criminal justice process. From investigation to indictment, to hearings, discovery, and our last topic was the plea negotiation. Today, I’d like to continue the conversation and address the more well-known path to justice, the trial.
In Ohio, a defendant can choose to have a jury trial or a bench trial in felony court. In a jury trial, jurors decide if someone is guilty or not guilty. In a bench trial, there is no jury. Instead, the defendant is tried before a judge, and the judge determines if they are guilty or not guilty. The state of Ohio has no input on the type of trial. That decision is solely up to the defendant and defense counsel, and I wouldn’t want to speculate on why one option would be chosen over the other. A bench trial and jury trial are similar. The biggest difference is the presence (or not) of a jury. That said, for the purpose of this article, I will focus on the jury trial.
Trial by jury is perhaps the type of trial most people are familiar with. These are usually the types of trials we see on television, and when people speak of trials, it’s common to reference being “judged by one’s peers,” which is, of course, a jury.
So let’s start there — jury selection. When you receive a summons for jury duty, you report to the courthouse and go through a process known as voir dire (the process of choosing which potential jurors will actually sit on the jury of an upcoming trial). I could write a whole column (and more) about the strategy of choosing jurors, but to sum it up, voir dire provides attorneys an opportunity to speak to jurors and eliminate those that cannot be fair or neutral, and dedicated to serving until the end. Both the prosecution and defense have input into which jurors are chosen. While everyone is qualified to serve, sometimes a person’s life experiences make it difficult. For example, if a potential juror were sexually assaulted as a child, it may be difficult for them to remain fair and neutral during a week of sexual assault testimony. That’s not meant to say the person isn’t fit to serve. In fact, they may be a great juror for another case.
Anything can happen during voir dire. I personally have had my fair share of humorous moments during this process. I vividly remember knocking a bottle of water off a podium all over potential jurors. Then, I remember doing it again, years later. Don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson now and leave my drink at the counsel table. All that to say, as potential jurors (and even sometimes as prosecutors), nerves can be high. You’re not sure what to expect, and that’s OK. During each step of the process, the judge explains what is happening next and what is expected.
This brings me to the burden of proof. In every criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proof, and for that reason, the law provides that the prosecution (state) goes first in all phases of the trial. What does that mean? Well, it means the state will offer opening statements first. The state will call and question witnesses first. The defense may cross examine a state’s witness, if they wish. When the state is finished presenting evidence, it “rests.” At that time, defense counsel has its turn. Defense counsel is not required to call witnesses or present evidence, but if it does, the state may refute or “rebut” their efforts by coming forward with additional witnesses or evidence. Once all of the evidence is admitted and all witnesses are heard, both parties provide a closing statement. You guessed it – the state goes first, followed by defense counsel. Because the state has the burden of proof, prosecutors get to have one last rebuttal argument after the defense — a last word in a sense. The judge then gives instructions of law to the jury, and the jury deliberates.
It sounds pretty cut and dry, right? And with time and experience, it is. Rarely do we have the shouting matches you sometimes see on television court dramas, but that’s not to say you won’t see vigorous advocacy from both sides. In fact, if you ever have occasion to observe a trial, I can tell you exactly what you’ll see. Sure, the defendants, charges, and details of each case are unique, but what you will see during trial – during any trial – are dedicated public servants who thoroughly enjoy an honest fight in our criminal justice system. That’s because we serve in our roles as ministers of justice with great pride, and we understand the enormous responsibility entrusted to us by the public.
My dad, who’s observed more than a few trials over the years, often jokes that I became a prosecutor so I could have the last word. As a red-headed Aries, there may be a little truth to that! What he also comments on is how my passion and love for my job is evident, and that’s true as well. You’ve heard me say it, time and time again — I love my job, including going to battle in a courtroom. It’s an adrenaline rush to make a closing argument with passion and conviction. It’s rewarding when witnesses and victims thank you for your efforts, even when the outcome isn’t what they hoped. It’s an honor to walk alongside victims and law enforcement, on the long and often brutal road of trial. I wouldn’t trade these memories, or any of my trial battle scars for anything. I’m proud of the work my office does, and I see the dedication of my staff every day. I think it takes a group of special people to serve their community in this way, and it’s a privilege to serve on this amazing team in a community that I love.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.