Covering Criminal Trials – Journalist’s Guide
Criminal trials are among a district court’s most dramatic events. Judges, lawyers, and jurors play distinct but essential roles.
On this page:
The Jury │ Opening Statements │ Witnesses │ Exhibits, Transcripts, and Courtroom Audio │ Motion to Acquit │ Closing Arguments │ Jury Instructions, Deliberations, and the Verdict │ Post-Verdict Interviews │ Non-Capital Sentencing │ Death Penalty Sentencing
The right to a trial by jury in federal criminal cases is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
Extensive background on juries is available. In addition, most district courts post a jury plan on their websites, which explains how potential jurors are selected from the community, as well as the court’s policy on whether and when to release jurors’ names.
By law, the courts seek to empanel juries that are a “fair cross-section” of the community. This starts with a “jury wheel,” a traditional term that dates to when prospective jurors' names were drawn from a revolving container. Today, the jury wheel is an automated database filled with names randomly selected from a source list or source lists, for use in further random selection of possible jurors for qualification and summoning. The number of names included in a court's jury wheel is proportional to the number of registered voters in each county comprising the district or jury division within the district.
During jury selection, often called voir dire, the judge, the lawyers, or both will question prospective jurors about their backgrounds, and potential biases that may hinder their ability to be impartial. In federal court, often only the judge will question potential jurors; counsel can request that specific questions be asked.
Voir dire is critical to ensuring an impartial jury. Prospective jurors may be struck from the panel in two ways. Lawyers may exercise a “challenge for cause,” claiming the juror cannot be impartial. If the judge agrees, the potential juror is excused. Lawyers also may exercise “peremptory challenges,” allowing them to remove jurors without stating a reason. The number of available peremptory challenges varies by case type, pursuant to statute and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
During voir dire, a party may object to another party's exercise of a peremptory challenge on grounds that the party tried to exclude a potential juror based on race, ethnicity, or gender. Such objections are known as “Batson challenges,” referring to Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 Supreme Court decision that ruled such exclusions unconstitutional.
Unless the parties agree otherwise, the jury consists of 12 persons. The court may impanel up to six alternates to replace any jurors who become disqualified or otherwise are unable to perform their duties.
In death penalty and other complex cases, jury selection can take as long as several weeks. In some courts, judges handling a high-profile trial will have hundreds or, in rare instances, even thousands of potential jurors fill out an extensive questionnaire. A manageable number of eligible jurors are then called in each day to be questioned individually.
In death penalty and other complex cases, jury selection can take as long as several weeks.
On the final day of jury selection, the qualified pool of jurors is called in to the courtroom, and both sides exercise their peremptory challenges until the jury is seated. In capital cases, each side is allowed a greater number of peremptory challenges, in accordance with the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
For exceptional cases, a judge may decide there is a need to sequester a jury – that is, keep all jurors in the court’s protection until the trial concludes.
As noted in Jurors, journalists should not contact a juror before a case is concluded. Even where a court permits the release of jurors’ names after the trial, a judge may order that jurors in a specific case remain anonymous.
Juror payment amounts are set by federal statute, and current rates are available at Juror Pay. Jurors also are reimbursed for reasonable transportation expenses and parking fees, and a judge may authorize an additional $10 a day if a proceeding lasts more than 10 days. Federal law does not require an employer to pay jurors during a trial, but the Jury Act forbids any employer from firing, intimidating, or coercing any permanent employee because of his or her federal jury service.
Defense counsel are not obligated to make an opening statement or present any evidence, since the defendant is presumed innocent.
At the beginning of a criminal trial, lawyers are limited to telling the jury what they believe the evidence will show. Thus, this is an opening statement, not an argument.
Prosecutors go first because they bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the offense(s) he or she has been charged with. Defense counsel are not obligated to make an opening statement or present any evidence, since the defendant is presumed innocent. Defense counsel may choose to make an opening statement at the conclusion of the initial set of prosecution witnesses, as opposed to at the start of trial. Reporters usually want to be present for opening statements. Not only do they hear a road map of the case the lawyers intend to present, but they often can get quotes that are useful to their coverage.
Some individual judges or local rules of court require the prosecution to file a list of potential witnesses prior to trial, along with a list of exhibits that may be entered into evidence. Reporters may ask the clerk of court’s office before the trial whether either list will be available to the public.
Prosecution witnesses take the stand first. Each will be asked questions by the prosecutor and can be cross-examined by the defense lawyer. If a witness is cross-examined, the prosecution is permitted a “redirect,” asking the witness only questions related to the topics discussed during cross-examination.
You may speak to witnesses after they are excused by the court, unless the judge indicates the witness is subject to recall to the stand later in the trial. The witness, however, is not obligated to answer your questions, and often may be advised by counsel not to do so.
Trial exhibits that are admitted into evidence become part of the public record. Subject to logistical considerations, they usually are available through the clerk of court’s office to inspect and copy. You also can request a copy of an exhibit from the party that introduced it. In some courts this is necessary, because parties retain custody of exhibits even after they have been introduced into evidence.
In high-profile cases, courts may work with the parties to make extra copies of exhibits that the news media can review, or the court may decide to post exhibits on its website. The presiding judge has some discretion in this area, so he or she might deny public access to certain evidence until after the conclusion of the trial.
In high-profile cases, courts may work with the parties to make extra copies of exhibits that the news media can review, or the court may decide to post exhibits on its website.
Transcripts of courtroom proceedings are not produced unless ordered by a party, a member of the public, or the court. However, by statute, every session of the court is recorded in some format.
Written transcripts are produced by a court reporter or transcriber. As noted in the Federal Court Reporting Program webpage, under Judicial Conference policy these transcripts are not available on PACER until 90 days after they are delivered to the clerk’s office.
During this 90-day period, transcripts are available at the clerk’s office for inspection only, or may be purchased from the court reporter or transcriber. The maximum per-page fee is set by the Judicial Conference, and each district sets a local rate subject to that maximum. A few courts have special exceptions to set their transcript rates higher.
After the 90-day period, transcripts can be viewed, downloaded, or printed for 10 cents per page on PACER. Additionally, the transcript is available for inspection and copying in the clerk’s office under the same terms and conditions as any other official public document in the case file.
In most bankruptcy cases, and also in some district court cases (especially proceedings involving magistrate judges), the official record is kept through digital audio recordings. When this is the case, under Judicial Conference policy, the presiding judge may choose to make a copy of the recordings available through PACER.
Copies of such digital audio recordings also may be purchased from the clerk’s office. The current rate is available in the miscellaneous fee schedules for district courts and for bankruptcy courts, which are set by the Judicial Conference. Courts may make these recordings available via tape, CD, email, and/or digital download. When a court reporter is employed to create a transcript, there is no public entitlement to the reporter’s personal backup recording.
After the prosecution’s last initial witness, the defense often makes a Rule 29 motion. Named after Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29, the motion asks the judge to acquit the defendant because the prosecution’s evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. This motion also may be made after the conclusion of testimony by defense witnesses.
These motions are not granted often, but when they are, the defendant goes free. The prosecution cannot appeal such a ruling and the defendant cannot be tried again in federal court on the same charges because of the constitutional protection against “double jeopardy.” If, however, the judge grants a Rule 29 motion after the jury reaches a guilty verdict, prosecutors can then appeal the judge’s acquittal.
Unlike during the opening statement, prosecutors and defense lawyers are permitted to make an argument after the completion of testimony. That is, they may marshal facts in an attempt to prove or disprove the government’s allegations.
The prosecution goes first, followed by the defense and a rebuttal by the prosecution. Because the prosecution has the burden of proof, it gets the final word. Reporters will want to be present for this portion of the trial.
Before deliberations, the judge will give the jury its final instructions, a step that can have enormous impact on the verdict. Both sides may request in writing that specific language be included in the instructions. Once the judge finalizes proposed instructions, both sides review them in advance. Any objections must be submitted on the record before the jury begins deliberation. While jury instructions typically are given in open court and can be tedious to listen to, they spell out the matters the jurors are to consider and those they are not. In complex or high-profile cases, reporters may find it useful to be present.
Jury deliberations are private; nobody other than the jurors may be present during this process. Jurors have two responsibilities: to determine the facts based on the evidence presented during the trial and to apply the relevant law that the judge provides during the jury instructions. During deliberations, the jurors may have questions about the evidence or the instructions. If they do, they give a note to the deputy marshal or the appropriate person designated by the court, who takes it to the judge. The judge then calls the lawyers back into court to discuss what the answers to the note should be, calls the jurors back into the courtroom, and gives them the answer, provided it does not deal with issues outside the scope of the case or require the judge to interpret the facts for the jurors.
Criminal juries must reach a unanimous verdict of guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” or not guilty. After thorough deliberation, the jury may report to the judge that it is deadlocked and unable to reach a verdict. At this point, the judge may give the jury what is known as the Allen charge. Named after an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case, the Allen charge urges jurors to reconsider their positions, as well as those of other jurors, and resume their deliberations in an effort to reach a verdict. If they attempt to do so but still report that they are deadlocked, the judge may declare a mistrial.
In most federal courthouses, once a jury has reached a verdict, it is announced as soon as all the lawyers can get to the courtroom. Reporters may have as little as 15 minutes’ warning. Inquire before the trial how members of the media will be notified when a verdict has been reached. Reporters will want to be present for the reading of the verdict.
Any media interviews must be arranged directly with lawyers and their clients. In high-profile cases, some type of media availability is common for prosecutors and defense lawyers, in or near court property, once a trial is completed. Rules regarding cameras are set by the court. You also are free to speak to jurors after the verdict is read. As noted in Jurors, they are not obligated to grant interviews. Similarly, lawyers and their clients are free to determine whether they wish to talk with the media or not.
Whether there is a plea agreement or a trial that ends with a conviction, sentencing is generally scheduled for a later date. The court’s probation office prepares a presentence investigation report on circumstances that may help the judge in determining a sentence. The report is based on conversations with the defendant and his or her family and friends, victims and their families, and others with relevant information. It is always filed under seal and accessible only to the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel.
Since 1987, sentencing in federal court has been governed by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. They are set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch, created by Congress to make sentencing more consistent and proportionate. In January 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines are merely advisory. Judges are urged to consider the guidelines but can depart from the guideline ranges, so long as the sentence is reasonable and does not exceed the maximum term set by statute for a particular crime.
The presentence report makes a recommendation based on how the guidelines rate the seriousness of the offense and on the defendant’s criminal history. The judge is not required to follow the recommendations of the probation office or the parties, but if the judge rejects a sentence agreed to by the defense and prosecution, a defendant may withdraw a guilty plea. During the sentencing hearing, defendants are given a chance to tell the court anything they believe the judge should consider before the sentence is imposed.
When a capital crime may have been committed, federal prosecutors must receive written authorization from the attorney general before they can seek the death penalty. Federal law provides for a two-part, or bifurcated, trial in a death penalty case. If a defendant is found guilty of a crime punishable by death, the same jury that convicted him or her will determine the sentence. During a second phase of the trial, known as the penalty phase, both sides can present witnesses and evidence. The prosecution presents aggravating circumstances to justify the death penalty, while the defense presents mitigating circumstances that support a sentence less than death. The jury has only two choices: execution or life in prison.
Death penalty cases are fairly rare in federal courts. When they do occur, a defendant is given two lawyers, including one who has specific expertise in capital trials, as well other resources to support the defense.
Access to evidence presented in the death penalty phase is the same as in other proceedings. See Exhibits, Transcripts, and Courtroom Audio.