THE FIRST STAGES OF A CRIMINAL TRIAL
There are five vitally important principles of justice which govern every criminal trial:
O Every person who is accused of crime must know what the accusation is. This must be set out in writing in the form of a charge, and it must state clearly what the person is alleged to have done.
O A person can be convicted (found guilty) of a crime only on evidence which is given in open court.
-Evidence Means the account of events given by witnesses (from their own knowledge of the events), who must swear on oath (or solemnly affirm) that they are telling the truth.
Open court means in a court which is open to the public, that is, anyone who wants to hear the case, including the family and friends of the defendant and the Press. They have to be over 14 years old.
O In a criminal trial the burden of proving the defendant's guilt is always on the prosecution. This means that it is for the prosecution to prove a defendant's guilt, not for the defendant to prove his innocence.
O 'No man shall be condemned unheard'. This means that whatever the case for the prosecution may be, the defendant has an equal right to have his or her case presented to the court, and to call evidence in support of that case.
O Trial by jury is actually a trial by judge and jury. It is a partnership in which the two have separate parts to play - with the judge presiding over the trial and deciding all matters of law, and the jury deciding all questions of fact.
The trial begins with the arraignment (accusation) of the defendant. The defendant is accused in court of the offences which are to be tried. This is done by the clerk reading out the indictment, the document which contains the charges. After each charge is read the defendant is asked: «Do you plead guilty or not guilty?». If the defendant pleads guilty to the charges against him, this means that he admits that he committed the offences. Then there is no need for a trial, and a judge will sentence him to the appropriate punishment. If he pleads not guilty, he denies committing the offence and the trial moves to the next stage.
Twelve jurors are sworn to try the case. A defendant has the right to challenge (to object to) any of the jurors who are chosen to try his case, but only if he can give a good reason for the objection. For example, if a juror knows a defendant, or knows any of the witnesses in the case, that would be good reason for objecting to him. If the judge agrees with the objection, the jurors are replaced by others to make up 12.
The barrister for the prosecution makes a prosecution opening speech, telling the jury what the case is all about. The purpose of this statement is to help the jury to understand what the charge is and to follow the evidence when it is given. Then he calls the prosecution witnesses. They must be sworn and give evidence according to certain rules. The side (the prosecution or the defence), calling the witness asks questions first, in order to bring out what the witness has to say (the examination-in-chief or direct examination). The party calling the witness is not allowed to ask questions that are designed to lead the witness into giving a particular answer (leading questions). Another important rule is the rule against allowing hearsay evidence. Witnesses may talk about what they saw and heard, but not about what other people may have told them. The evidence of the witness may be tested in cross-examination by the lawyer for the other side (the defence or prosecution). He is allowed to ask any questions provided that they are relevant to the case.
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