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Criminal Justice System: How It Works

The criminal justice process is complex, and often can be confusing to persons not familiar with criminal law.  This arrest-to-sentence guide and legal glossary are designed to explain and clarify the criminal justice process in New York County.

The Trial

What is a Trial?

A criminal trial is a formal presentation of evidence before a court of law or a jury to determine whether a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the criminal charges brought against him.  Trials may be conducted for felonies, misdemeanors, or violations. However, relatively few misdemeanor or violation cases proceed to trial.

How is a jury selected?

Voir Dire is the name given to jury selection.  In Criminal Court, 6 jurors are chosen and 1 or 2 alternates.  In Supreme Court, 12 jurors and 2 to 4 alternates are chosen.  When prospective jurors are brought to the courtroom, the judge will explain certain principles of law, and question the prospective jurors.  The Assistant District Attorney (ADA) then questions the jurors.  After the ADA has finished, the defense attorney asks further questions.  Out of earshot of the jury and following established rules, the attorneys will excuse jurors they believe should not sit on the case.  The remaining jurors are sworn.  The process continues until the full number of jurors and alternates is chosen.

What is Rosario material?

Rosario material includes any previously recorded statements of a witness who will testify at trial.  Police forms that summarize a witness' statement, a signed statement by a witness, and paperwork prepared by a testifying police officer are examples of Rosario materials.  Rosario material must be given to the defense before the opening statements.

After Jury Selection, How Does a Trial Proceed?

  • Opening Statement: At the beginning of the trial, the Assistant District Attorney makes an opening statement.  A defense attorney may make an opening statement, but is not required to do so.  In an opening, the attorney explains what he or she contends the evidence will show at trial.
  • Direct Case: The direct case brought by the District Attorney's Office involves the calling of witnesses and the introduction of physical objects or records into evidence.  The ADA asks questions of each witness.  The defense attorney then asks questions on cross-examination.  The ADA may ask clarifying questions on redirect.  This process continues until all of the prosecution's witnesses on the direct case have testified.  At the end of the direct case the defendant may move to dismiss certain charges on the theory that the trial evidence is insufficient to establish the crime(s) charged.
  • Defense Case: The defense case may involve many witnesses, including the defendant, or there may be no witnesses at all.  The defendant is not required to present any evidence, or to testify at trial.  If defense witnesses are called, the ADA may cross-examine each witness.
  • Rebuttal: The District Attorney's Office may have a rebuttal case, and if so, defense counsel may cross-examine the rebuttal witnesses.
  • Summation: The defense is the first to deliver a summation, or concluding arguments.  In its summation, the defense will usually question the evidence presented by the District Attorney's Office and generally try to establish that the case has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  The prosecution's summation explains the evidence presented, counters defense arguments into perspective, and affirmatively asserts reasons for finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Jury Charge: The Court then instructs the jury on the law and explains legal concepts such as the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the elements of each crime charged.  After the judge's instructions, the ADA and the defense attorney are given an opportunity to ask for additional instructions or to object to the legal instructions already given.
  • Deliberation: Jury deliberation begins after the judge's legal instructions and may last any length of time.  During deliberation the jury may ask to review evidence introduced at trial or to have instructions or testimony re-read.  The jury may find the defendant guilty, not guilty, or may be unable to agree.  A jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict is called a hung jury. When there is a hung jury, the case may be retried.  A not guilty verdict means that the jury concluded that the case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt; it does not always mean that a defendant is innocent.