What is a Trial?
A trial, in law, is the judicial examination of the issues of law and of facts in a civil suit or criminal proceeding. In a more limited sense, a trial relates only to the determination of issues of fact. A case may be tried by a jury or by a court sitting without a jury. A trial by jury usually is considered to begin with the commencement of the presentation of the case to the jury and to end with the verdict.
Before a trial begins, the issues are delineated by the pleadings (see plea and pleading), in which each side states in abbreviated form its version of the case. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which are typical of a modernized procedural system, the underlying ideas are that pleadings are sufficient if fair notice is given and that an issue should be reached at an early stage. Motions for summary judgment may be used to dispose of cases where there are no issues of fact or to obtain the pretrial adjudication of some issues. Deposition and discovery (qq.v.) may be used, under the Federal Rules, to eliminate the surprise element at trials by allowing the parties to obtain adequate factual information beforehand. Questions may be asked regarding any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the impending action. The trial judge has broad powers in the pretrial procedure to confer with the attorneys and to issue orders relating to the simplification of issues, the amendment of pleadings, the possibility of obtaining admissions of facts and of documents to avoid unnecessary proof, the limitation of the number of expert witnesses, and similar matters.
In addition to filing pleadings and participating in pretrial procedures, counsel for the parties have the responsibility of presenting the case at the trail. Among the functions of counsel are: examining prospective jurors, making opening and closing statements to the jury, questioning witnesses, making objections to improper evidence, and presenting to the court motions, legal arguments, and suggested instructions for the jury. In criminal cases in the federal courts, the right to the assistance of counsel is expressly guaranteed by the Constitution. Accused persons have a more limited right to counsel in state courts, inferred from the 14th Amendment rather than specifically provided for by the Constitution.
The function of the judge is to supervise the trial in order to assure its proper conduct and the fair administration of justice. Where appropriate he may examine witnesses, but he should not usurp the function of counsel in this respect. During the trial the judge should not make comments that would prejudice either side in the minds of the jury, and he should in general refrain from remarking as to the weight or effect of testimony or the credibility of witnesses. The judge also instructs, or charges, the jury as to the law applicable to the case, and may in appropriate instances take the case from the jury or enter judgment contrary to its verdict. The function of the jury, in general, is to decide the facts of the case on the basis of the evidence introduced, in accordance with instructions on the law given by the judge.
Public policy is generally thought to require that trials be open, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as many state constitutions, specifically so provide. In some cases, however, courts have the power to order trials to be conducted in private. For example, where trade secrets or indecent or scandalous material are involved, the public may be excluded. Divorce actions are frequently tried in private. A defendant in a criminal case has a constitutional right to a public trial.
Proof of matters constituting the essentials of a case must be presented at the trial. The party having the burden of proof, who is usually the plaintiff in a civil action or the prosecutor in a criminal case, generally is entitled to open the evidence. After he has offered all his evidence in chief, his adversary is given a chance to introduce his evidence in chief. Finally, the first party may present in rebuttal evidence tending to answer matter introduced by his adversary. Proof may be offered in the form of documentary evidence as well as oral testimony.
Motions and objections are used during the trial as a method of speeding up the proceedings and formulating issues for review by appellate courts. A motion for a directed verdict is a request to the judge to decide the case without submitting it to the jury. The court should grant it when the proof fails to disclose any controversy as to controlling facts and where the case requires merely an application of legal principles to proved or admitted facts. Objections are made when one party believes that evidence offered by his adversary should not be admitted.
When both sides have presented their evidence in a jury trial, the case is submitted to the jury for its verdict, unless the judge removes the case from its consideration by directing a verdict. A general verdict is a blanket finding by the jury, acting on instructions from the court as to applicable legal principles, in favor of one party or the other. A special verdict is a series of specific findings of fact, without reference to the ultimate issues involved in the case. At common law, a verdict has to be unanimous on the part of all 12 jurors. State constitutions often provide, however, that the concurrence of all jurors is not required.
After the verdict has been rendered, the trial judge usually enters judgment in accordance with it. The losing party may then move to have the verdict set aside or may make a motion for a new trial, a rehearing, or a judgment regardless of the verdict. If the trial court denies all such motions, he may seek review of the case by a higher court by filing an appeal within the time specified by the applicable statute or rule of court.