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Trial

How long does it take for a case to go to trial?

As with most things in the law, the answer is... it depends.  Some courts are more backed up than others, and some types of cases are given priority.  Additionally, people who are in jail awaiting trial are given priority over people who are out on bond.  It typically takes anywhere from several months up to over a year to go to trial.

What happens at trial?

Texas jury trials are split into three main sections: jury selection, guilt-innocence, and (if needed) punishment.  A simplified explanation of each phase is provided below.

Jury Selection

In jury selection, a panel of people from the community is brought in to the courtroom.  For misdemeanors, the panel is usually 24-30 people and for felonies the panel will generally be at least 60 people, with jury panels for some types of cases being much larger.  The goal of the jury selection phase is to find 6 (for misdemeanor) or 12 (for felony) people who can be fair and judge the case on its merits and not on their preconceived ideas.

The judge will give the jury panel some instructions and then the prosecuting attorney will be able to ask them questions.  After the prosecuting attorney questions the panel, the defense attorney gets a chance to ask questions.  Jurors who indicated during the questioning that they have a bias or who cannot be fair for some other reason are removed from the jury panel "for cause."  An unlimited number of people may be removed for cause.  After those people who cannot be fair are removed, each side gets to strike a number of jurors for almost any reason (other than race, gender, or other protected trait).  In a misdemeanor trial, each side can remove 3 people from the panel.  In a felony, each side can remove 10 people from the panel.  (These numbers can change in certain circumstances, such as multiple defendants being tried at the same trial.)

The first 6 (or 12 in a felony) people remaining after all the strikes comprise the jury.  Those people are sworn in and we move to the guilt-innocence phase of the trial.

Guilt-Innocence

The guilt-innocence phase of the trial starts with opening statements by the prosecution and defense.  (The defense also has the option to wait until later to make their opening statements.)  Opening statements are summaries of what each side believes the evidence in the case will show, and they provide a sort of road map for the jury.

After opening statements, the prosecution puts on its "case in chief" by calling witnesses to testify.  Witness testimony may lead to exhibits being admitted, such as photographs and videos, which are then shown to the jury.  After the prosecution questions each of its witnesses, the defense gets an opportunity to cross examine them.

Once the prosecution has called all its witnesses, the defense may make opening statements if they did not make them at the beginning.  The defense then presents witnesses and evidence if it chooses to do so.  After each witness is questioned by the defense, the prosecutor will have an opportunity to cross examine the witness.

After the defense calls its last witness, the court will read the "jury charge" to the jury.  The jury charge explains the law to the jury and gives them their instructions.  Once the jury has been instructed, it is time for closing arguments.

In closing arguments, each side makes statements to try to persuade the jury to vote for their side.  The prosecution goes first, followed by the defense.  The prosecution then has a second opportunity to speak as a rebuttal to the defense.  The jury then retires to the jury room to begin deliberations.  Once they have reached a unanimous verdict, they are brought back into the courtroom where the verdict is announced.

if the verdict is not guilty, then the trial is complete and the defendant gets to put the nightmare behind them.  If the verdict is guilty, then we move on to the punishment phase of the trial.

Punishment

Defendants can elect to have either the judge or the jury assess punishment if they are found guilty.  No matter which they choose, the process is the same and is very similar to the guilt-innocence phase.  Both sides can make opening statements, call witnesses, and cross examine the other side's witnesses.  Both sides make closing arguments.  

The biggest difference is that while the guilt-innocence phase was narrowly limited to the event for which the defendant was charged, the punishment phase is a much broader look at the defendant.  It is here that the jury hears about a defendant's criminal history (or lack of criminal history).  The jurors learn about community involvement, family obligations, and events in the past that they may want to consider when determining punishment.

What happens after the trial?

If you are found not guilty, then you are eligible for an immediate expunction to clear the arrest from your record.  Not only will the arrest records be cleared, but you will be legally allowed to deny ever being arrested for the crime for which you were on trial.

If you are found guilty, then you will either be taken into custody or placed on community supervision (probation), depending on the sentence that was rendered.  You can also file an appeal if you feel that the judge made some sort of legal error in your case.  Examples of legal errors would include allowing evidence to be admitted at trial that should have been suppressed or allowing evidence in over a valid objection. 

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