A trial is the formal process by which parties present their cases to a trier of fact, who may be a judge or a jury comprised of citizens from the community. As with other aspects of the law, trials have a number of complicated rules that parties must follow in order to present their cases for adjudication. Trials are generally open to the public and it is highly recommended that parties who intend to try their cases without the assistance of an attorney attend one or more trials to familiarize themselves with the process. While trial process and procedure is too complicated to discuss in great detail in this overview, the general parts of any trial, whether before a judge or jury, are as follows: (i) opening statements; (ii) presentation of evidence; (iii) closing arguments; and (iv) rendering of a verdict. In trials before a jury comprised of citizens, two additional components apply, which are (i) voir dire; and (ii) jury selection. References in this Section to the “plaintiff” shall mean the complaining party in a civil matter and the State in a criminal matter and references to the “defendant” shall mean the responding party in a civil matter and the accused in a criminal matter.
1. Right to a Trial by a Jury. The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Georgia unless waived knowingly and voluntarily. In situations where the right to trial is waived, the matter proceeds before a judge sitting as a trier of fact. While the typical jury consists of twelve jurors, some jurisdictions allow juries of a few as six citizens.
2. Voir Dire. Voir dire is a process by which the judge and the parties or their counsel may question panels of jurors in order to test and confirm their impartiality. Potential jurors are asked general questions and the parties may follow-up those general questions with specific questions to particular panel members.
3. Jury Selection. Jury selection is the process used by the litigants to determine the panel of jurors to hear a case. Once voir dire is completed and a panel of jurors has been qualified by the court and the parties, the litigants have an opportunity to strike for cause any jurors from the panel who appear to be biased. After that, the parties use peremptory strikes to eliminate prospective jurors from the panel until the parties arrive at the appropriate number of jurors and alternates who will hear the case.
4. Opening Statements. Opening statements are the opportunity of the parties or their counsel to tell the jury what they expect the evidence to show. While there are rules of procedure that govern the order of the presentation by the parties, the State, in criminal matters, and the plaintiff, in civil matters, generally go first and the defendant generally goes last.
5. Court Proceedings. The court proceedings are governed by the rules of evidence and the parties have the right to object and request certain rulings by the court during the proceedings. Some matters may be determined by the court outside of the presence of the jury. Parties are entitled to file motions before and during the trial, such as motions in limine, which limit what evidence may be presented to the jury, and motions for directed verdict, which request that the court render a verdict based upon the evidence – or lack thereof – without allowing the matter to be determined by the jury. It is against this backdrop of procedural maneuvering that cases are present to the jury.
6. Presentation of Evidence. The plaintiff proceeds with the presentation of a case and has the burden of proof. During the presentation of the plaintiff’s case, the defendant has the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. The plaintiff also may call the defendant or other witnesses for purposes of cross-examination. After the plaintiff rests, the defendant has the opportunity to present evidence and the plaintiff may cross-examine witnesses. Both parties have the right to offer witnesses and evidence in rebuttal. After the defendant rests, the case is ready to be decided by the jury.
7. Closing Arguments. After the presentation of the evidence, the parties or their counsel are afforded the opportunity to tell the jury what they believe the evidence has shown. This is the final opportunity for the parties to be heard before the jury makes a determination based on the evidence.
8. Jury Charge. After closing arguments, the court charges the jury with the law to be applied by it to the evidence that has been presented. The jury charge is a statement of the law as determined by the court and the parties in proceedings outside the presence of the jury and provides the framework to be used by the jury in its decision-making process. The parties are able to suggest charges to be presented and the court makes the final determination of what the charge to the jury should be.
9. Jury Deliberations and Verdict. Once the jury has been charged with the law, it retires to the jury room to begin its deliberations. It is the province of the jury to determine what the evidence means based upon the law it is required to apply and the jury determines the outcome of the matter by unanimous agreement and renders its verdict. If the jury is unable to reach a verdict after receiving further instructions from the court, the jury is said to be a “hung jury” and the matter will be required to be retried.