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Understanding the Different Stages of the Criminal Defense Process

Being charged with a crime is a scary experience that comes with a lot of unknowns. Regardless of guilt or innocence, understanding how the criminal defense process works can help to clarify what the next few months may look like. As of the last study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the jail incarceration rate increased by 15% year-over-year from 2020 to 2021, going to show why understanding the criminal process is all the more important. 

Never settle for trying to prove your innocence on your own. It’s always best to reach out to a board-certified defense attorney who can help you with the process. 

What is Criminal Defense?

In short, criminal defense simply refers to the practice of applying legal protections to people who have been accused of committing a crime. Criminal defense can occur at the state or federal level. The most common five categories seen in criminal defense include: misdemeanors, sexual offenses, burglary, drug crimes, and assault. 

If you have been charged with crimes falling into the above categories or another type of crime, read up on the following six steps to better understand how the justice system works. 

6 Common Steps of the Criminal Defense Process

While the finer details of the criminal defense process can vary on a state-by-state or federal basis, the following six stages are most commonly seen assuming your case is going to court:

1. Selection of a jury

If applicable, jury selection will be the first stage of the defense process. This will involve the judge, plaintiff’s attorney, and the defendant’s attorney. Jurors will be asked a series of questions that pertain to the case, along with questions that are meant to gain a better sense of a potential juror’s life and background.

The majority of those called to service won’t be selected if their answers disqualify them of if the defense and prosecution exclude them. Examples could be a juror responding to an answer with extreme bias or somebody who somehow already knows details of the case and has formed an opinion.

2. Opening statements

Once the jury has been selected and the trial begins, opening statements by the prosecutor and the defense will begin. Generally speaking, there won’t be any evidence or witnesses provided at this time. The prosecution normally goes first when giving statements as it is their job to prove guilt. 

3. Witness testimony and cross-examination

Perhaps one of the largest aspects to a trial is the stage of witness testimony and cross-examination. Witnesses will be sworn in after being called and will be questioned by the party that called them. The purpose is to extract information that is in favor of the questioning party. 

The opposing party will then have a chance to cross-examine the witness with the goal of weakening the testimony by pointing out any issues with the witness. The first party then has a chance to reexamine the witness. 

4. Closing arguments

At the end of the trial, both the prosecution and defense are allowed to provide closing statements that summarize their stance of what occurred during the trial. 

5. Deliberation and verdict

Finally, the jury will disperse to a separate room to discuss and come to a verdict. For civil cases, a certain number of jurors must find guilt whereas a criminal case requires a unanimous verdict. If a unanimous verdict is not found, a retrial with a new jury will occur. This final stage can last hours to even weeks depending on the complexity and length of the trial. 

General Legal Tips When Accused of a Crime

Now that the general criminal defense process has been outlined, here are some tips to keep in mind when you are accused of a crime:

  • Contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately 

  • Do not react with anger towards the accuser or any law enforcement personnel

  • Do not submit DNA or any other form of testing without a lawyer present

  • Remain silent until your attorney arrives

  • Do not attempt to destroy or tamper with any evidence that may be related to the case

When worried about heading to trial, keep in mind that it’s reported that 97% of federal cases and 94% of state cases, on average, end in plea bargains before ever reaching a trial. 

Protect your reputation with the help of an attorney

Above all, you should never speak to law enforcement without your attorney present when charged with a crime. Let your board-certified defense lawyer walk you through the process in order to give you the best shot at clearing your name or reducing your sentence.


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