In California criminal cases, a jury trial is where 12 members of the community assemble to hear the evidence and decide whether or not a defendant is guilty of the crime or crimes with which he or she is charged.
All persons facing charges for misdemeanors or felonies may have a jury trial. The jurors (“finders of fact”) must unanimously agree upon guilt before the defendant can be found guilty and convicted.1
Below, our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following:
- 1. What is a jury trial in California?
- 2. What are the phases of a jury trial?
- 3. What are some of the common evidentiary motions?
- 4. What if I cannot afford an attorney?
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
1. What is a jury trial in California?
If, at the time of your arraignment, you enter a “not guilty” plea, you will thereafter engage in a number of pretrial proceedings that are designed to resolve the case. This is usually by way of a plea bargain. However, if you maintain your “not guilty” plea, you will ultimately proceed to trial, which is your constitutional right. Most likely, that trial will be a jury trial.
The jury in a California criminal jury trial includes twelve members who represent a cross-section of the community in which the charged offense was committed. Although a jury may not fully mirror the demographic makeup of the community in areas such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, employment, national origin, etc., the D.A. and defense may not deliberately exclude certain groups and create an unrepresentative jury.
Before the jury can convict you, this “jury of your peers” must unanimously agree that you are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is sometimes also called a moral certainty.3
The right to a jury trial is not a right that only extends to defendants who are facing misdemeanor or felony charges. Even misdemeanor cases often go to trial. It is a right that also extends to:
- the prosecution,4 and
- a variety of additional proceedings.
- Health and Safety Code 11357(b) possession of marijuana law (even though this law carries no possible incarceration period),5
- Mentally Disordered Offender “MDO” commitment hearings,6 and
- Sexually Violent Predator “SVP” commitment hearings.7
In addition, the right to a jury trial extends to any allegations that may affect the sentence or enhance the penalty (for example, proving prior convictions and/or death penalty proceedings).8
2. What are the phases of a jury trial?
California jury trials can be broken down into a number of phases, and each phase of the trial has its own rules and regulations. Typically, a jury trial proceeds as follows on the trial date:
- jury selection,
- opening statements,
- evidence (also known as the prosecution and defense “cases in chief” which includes the examination and cross-examination of witnesses by both sides),
- closing arguments,
- jury deliberations,
- verdict, and finally, if necessary,
Let us take a closer look at each of these stages in order to gain a better understanding of California jury trial procedures as a whole. (Note that criminal prosecutions in federal court are largely similar to those in state court.)
2.1. Jury selection
Jury selection, not surprisingly, is the process by which an impartial jury is chosen. During jury selection, the defense attorney and prosecutor ask prospective jury members questions (known as the “voir dire“) in an effort to determine who will comprise the most favorable jury.
During this process, the parties attempt to find twelve jurors (and sometimes alternate jurors)10 on which they agree. An important safeguard of jury selection involves asking the court to dismiss certain candidates. The attorneys make this request either
- for cause, or
- through the use of a peremptory challenge.
If the attorney asks the court to dismiss a potential juror “for cause“, it means that the individual has expressed a bias and is not suitable to decide the case (for example, the juror may have stated that – based on religious reasons – she cannot pass judgment on the defendant). Lawyers are permitted an unlimited amount of these challenges.
If the attorney exercises a “peremptory challenge“, the attorney does not need to state the reason why he/she dismissed that individual from jury service. Each attorney is allowed between six and twenty peremptory challenges, depending on the alleged offenses.11
There is an important point to address with respect to peremptory challenges. An attorney may not excuse prospective jurors based on their:
- ethnicity, etc.
If he/she is suspected of doing so on a systematic basis, the opposing attorney will likely file what is known as a “Wheeler motion”.12 If granted, the entire jury panel will be dismissed, and a new panel will be ordered and questioned.13
Once twelve jurors have been selected, the attorneys make their opening statements.
2.2. Opening statements
As Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi14 explains:
“Opening statements give the jury a road map of what the attorneys expect the evidence to prove. During opening statements, the attorneys are not permitted to introduce evidence. They are, however, allowed to offer a ‘preview of coming attractions.'”
Depending on the circumstances of the offense(s), opening statements may be brief or quite detailed. The judge may also set time limits on the attorneys’ opening statements.
The prosecution goes first. If the defense wishes to make an opening statement (which it typically does), it follows.
2.3. The case in chief
This is the “bulk” of the California criminal jury trial – that is, the segment where each side introduces its evidence in accordance with the California rules of evidence. Attorneys do not personally introduce evidence. They do so through:
- live witness testimony,
- documents or objects,
- photos, videos, and other exhibits
Aside from “fact witnesses” who testify based on their personal observations of the case, either the prosecution or defense may introduce expert opinion testimony during a trial. Such experts may share scientific principles or research that could be relevant to the case, or provide opinions based on specialized knowledge to aid the jury comprehend the evidence.
In some cases, jury trials can turn into a “contest” of experts, and it is up to the jury to evaluate and determine which expert is more credible.
After the attorney examines each witness, the other side’s attorney is given an opportunity to confront and cross-examine the witness. One of the purposes of cross-examination is to undermine the witness’s reliability and credibility.
This process (a.k.a. “re-direct” and “re-cross”) continues until the attorneys have no further questions. But in order to ensure that this process does not continue indefinitely, each side is limited to questioning the witness exclusively about issues that the previous attorney raised.
However, this limitation only kicks in after both attorneys have had one full opportunity to inquire about any testimony that they wish.
Note that with few exceptions, the prosecution cannot depend on statements made by witnesses who decline to undergo cross-examination.
2.4. Closing arguments
After all the evidence has been submitted, the attorneys engage in their closing arguments. During this phase of the California criminal jury trial process, the attorneys recap the evidence in a way that is most favorable to their client.
The lawyers may not comment on evidence that was not in the trial or misstate the law.15
The prosecution gives their closing argument first, and then the defense gives their closing argument. The prosecution then gets a final opportunity to rebut the defense’s argument. This final argument is usually much shorter in duration than the first two.
2.5. Jury deliberations
After the attorneys present their closing arguments, the case “goes to the jury”. The judge and attorneys review all the applicable jury instructions to determine which ones the judge should read to the jury.
Once the judge has read all the applicable instructions, the jury begins its deliberations. The jury designates a “foreperson” to guide the jury in their deliberations. Jurors should debate the case until they unanimously reach a guilty or not guilty verdict.
The jury may ask the judge, in the presence of the attorneys:
- questions about the case,
- to rehear specific testimony,
- to view the scene of the incident, etc.
But the jury may not consider evidence outside the “record”. They also cannot speak or otherwise communicate with people outside the jury about the case.16
Ultimately, the jury must decide whether the prosecution proved each element of each charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense did not have to prove anything – the burden of proof rests with the D.A.
In rare circumstances, the judge will sequester the jury, which means that they will not have contact with anyone other than themselves for the duration of the deliberations.
Once the jury reaches its verdict – or has deliberated the case to the point that the judge believes there is no further point in trying – deliberations end.17
2.6. The verdict
If the jury unanimously finds the defendant “not guilty” on all charges, the case is dismissed, and the defendant goes free.
If even one member of the jury panel disagrees with the rest, the jury is hung, and the defendant retains the presumption of innocence. A “hung jury” results in either:
- a mistrial (which means there may be a retrial with a new jury),
- a plea bargain to a reduced charge that carries a lesser sentence, or
- a dismissal of the case.
If the jury unanimously finds the defendant guilty on one or more charges, the defendant proceeds to a sentencing hearing on those counts unless the judge grants the defendant’s motion for a new trial per PC 1181 and sets aside the verdict (which is done for a variety of reasons when, simply put, the jury verdict is against the law).
(Note that in civil trials, it is not always necessary that the verdict be unanimous.)
2.7. The sentencing hearing
Following a conviction, a defendant will have a sentencing hearing. A sentencing hearing is an opportunity for both the defense and prosecution to make a “pitch” to the judge as to what they believe the defendant’s sentence should be.
The defense attorney presents mitigating factors, and the prosecution presents aggravating factors. After listening to both sides, the judge ultimately determines the exact sentence, within the framework of what is legally permissible.
“A trial can be like a great movie. The facts of the case keep the audience on the edge of their seats. They will laugh and cry from the experience. But in the end this drama of district court is different from anything coming out of Hollywood. This is a drama where the audience gets to write the ending.”
— California Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Scafiddi
3. What are some of the common evidentiary motions?
Depending on the circumstances of the case, there may be additional motions and/or plea negotiations that take place throughout the trial as well. Some of the most common include:
- standard objections to evidence / testimony,
- motions to exclude evidence (these motions apply to a number of different issues that range anywhere from excluding newly discovered evidence to excluding coerced confessions to excluding unnecessarily gruesome photos to excluding the sexual conduct of a sex crime victim),
- motions to exclude witnesses from the courtroom,
- motions to discharge jurors (this, too, could be for any number of reasons, such as juror misconduct, a juror becomes ill, a juror is inattentive or falls asleep during the trial, or a juror has an unusually emotional reaction to the evidence),18
- challenges to expert testimony (for example, the expert is testifying to matters beyond his/her expertise, the basis for the opinion is improper, and/or the testimony will confuse the issues and mislead the jury), and
- motion for acquittal (a.k.a. Penal Code 1118.1 motion), which the judge may consider on his/her own or at the request of the defense
- at the close of evidence of either side, or
- just prior to jury deliberations.
The premise of a motion for acquittal is that the prosecution has not sustained its burden of proof as to one or more elements of the crime.19
And regarding court (or “bench”) trials:
You have the right to waive a California criminal jury trial and instead to allow the judge to decide the outcome of your case.20 This is what is known as a bench trial or a court trial. However, because the right to a jury trial is so deeply embedded in our Constitution, the defense attorney and the prosecutor must both agree to this waiver.21
For the most part, the procedures for both jury trials and bench trials are the same, although bench trials may be a little less formal and considerably shorter (since there is no jury selection process or oral reading of the jury instructions).
Depending on the circumstances of your case, this may be a strategically advantageous option that you may wish to discuss with your attorney.
4. What if I cannot afford an attorney?
At your arraignment, you can ask the court to appoint you a public defender if you cannot afford private counsel. It is your constitutional right to have competent and effective representation.
Then there will be various pretrial proceedings aimed at resolving the case through a plea bargain. Should the case proceed to trial, your public defender will represent you.
You have the option to represent yourself, though this is typically not recommended. As long as your decision to act as your own attorney is made knowingly and intelligently, the court must respect your choice.
Contact our California criminal defense attorneys for legal advice about your case. Our DUI and criminal law firm represents clients throughout the state.
Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys are available to answer any questions relating to Nevada’s criminal court system. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.
To learn about Nevada jury trials, go to our page on Nevada jury trials.
- Accident as a legal defense
- Admissibility rules
- Character evidence
- Double jeopardy
- Grounds to disqualify a judge
- Motion to continue
- Preliminary hearing
- Spousal privilege/marital privilege
- Subpoena duces tecum
- Your right to a California jury trial comes from the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, by the California Constitution Article 1, sections 16 and 24, and by various California statutory provisions.
- Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices throughout the state.
- California Constitution Article 1, section 16. See also California Jury Instructions, Criminal (CALJIC 2.90).
- People v. King (1970) 1 Cal.3d 791, 795.
- Tracy v. Municipal Court (1978) 22 Cal.3d 760, 764.
- California Penal Code 2972 PC.
- California Welfare and Institutions Code 6603 — Trial by jury.
- People v. Guzman (1988) 45 Cal.3d 915, 968.
- California Penal Code 1093 PC.
- California Penal Code 1093 PC.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 231.
- People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258.
- People v. Smith (1993) 21 Cal.App.4th 342, 346.
- Criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi represents clients at California criminal jury trials throughout the Inland Empire.
- People v. Villa (1980) 109 Cal.App.3d 360, 364-365. See also People v. Mendoza (2007) 42 Cal.4th 686, 702.
- California Penal Code 1138 PC.
- California Penal Code 1140 PC.
- See California Penal Code 1093 PC, endnote 10, above.
- California Penal Code 1118.1 PC.
- California Constitution Article 1, section 16, endnote 3, above.
- See same.