Though only a fraction of federal criminal cases goes to trial, a competent attorney prepares for the possibility of trial even as they are negotiating a plea agreement. Should negotiations fall through, or other circumstances warrant a trial, the attorney should have all hands on deck in your defense.
Defendants in federal cases are generally entitled to a trial by a jury of their peers or a jury trial. However, if you waive this right, or yours is the rare case where you are not entitled to a jury trial, you may face a sole judge who rules on your case. This is called a bench trial, an unlikely scenario that an attorney can explain, if it is relevant to your case.
You can reasonably expect your attorney to argue your defense in front of twelve jurors, with a judge mediating proceedings, hearing motions, and ensuring the trial moves forward.
The trial portion of a federal criminal trial in New Jersey includes:
Selection of Jurors
United States Courts explain that trial juries, including those in federal criminal cases, are known as petit juries. These juries sit and observe the trial from a box in the courtroom but deliberate on case-related matters (including the defendant's guilt) in private.
The first step in a trial for both prosecutor and defense attorney, is choosing these jurors. Also known as voir dire, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) explains that jury selection in federal criminal cases usually consists of:
- The presentation of prospective jurors
- Questioning of jurors by the defense attorney and prosecutor
- Raising of concerns about jurors' potential conflicts of interest
- Removal of jurors without explanation (each side has a limited number of these peremptory challenges)
- Objections to jurors based on conflicts of interest or other concerns, with the judge ruling whether or not to exclude a prospective juror
Jurors are arguably the most critical piece of a trial, even more important than a judge. These individuals will solely determine the defendant's fate; therefore, jury selection is a pivotal stage in the federal court process.
An attorney who fails to challenge unqualified or compromised jurors puts their client at immense and unnecessary risk. You must have a lawyer you trust to protect you, and issue astute legal challenges, during voir dire.
Like the first scene of a film or the first page in a book, opening statements can impact a jury. Both defense attorney and prosecutor will often outline their case, which evokes an emotional and lasting response in jurors.
The American Bar Association (ABA) explains that an effective opening statement will:
- Establish the character and credibility of the defendant
- Present themes that will recur throughout the rest of the trial (such as malpractice by law enforcement officials towards the defendant)
- Tell a straightforward story in plain, understandable language
- Address any unfavorable facts or evidence that will emerge during the trial
- Humanize the defendant
Your attorney's opening statement may contradict the prosecution's. Even when dealing with the same evidence and testimony, defense attorneys and prosecutors present opposing interpretations. The jury's job is to decide which side's argument is most persuasive, and those arguments begin with opening statements.
Presentation of Evidence and Witnesses by the Prosecution
Though oral arguments (including opening statements) can frame a case, evidence and testimony are the bedrock of a prosecution or defense. The prosecution will begin its case first, so the prosecutor may present evidence that it believes supports its quest for a conviction.
Some evidence types you might see in a federal criminal case are:
- Video footage
- Call and text records
- DNA evidence
- Blood spatter evidence
- Weapons and ballistic evidence
- Digital communications, including text messages
- Bank statements
- Transcripts of recorded conversations
- Transcripts of interviews between law enforcement officials and defendants
- Informant accounts
The prosecution will only present evidence that it can frame as indicative of your guilt. However, evidence can be more subjective than some believe. Your lawyer will do everything possible to cast doubt on the prosecution's evidence.
The Prosecution Will Present Its Witnesses
Federal cases in New Jersey do not follow a “first evidence, then witnesses” format. Rather, each side may present evidence and witnesses together, often asking witnesses questions about specific pieces of evidence.
The prosecution may present and question several types of witnesses, including:
- Law enforcement officials: The individuals who investigated you, or interacted with you in some way relevant to your case, may serve as witnesses. Law enforcement officials may be asked to give opinions about your guilt or specific behaviors that inform your guilt. Your attorney will push back against any speculative statements by the witnesses.
- Experts: The prosecution may call witnesses to interpret evidence or bolster other aspects of your case. Your attorney should question these witnesses in a way that casts doubt on potentially harmful testimony.
- Alleged victims: The prosecution may call witnesses who allege that you have perpetrated a criminal act upon them. Questioning alleged victims is a sensitive undertaking that your lawyer will complete.
- Informants: This may include anyone claiming they participated in the alleged crime. It is fair to question informants' credibility and to highlight the likely fact that an informant receives some benefit in return for their testimony.
A skilled criminal defense attorney will pay close attention to both the prosecutor's questions and the witnesses' responses. A capable attorney will object when a prosecutor leads the witness into a certain answer, asks inappropriate questions, or poses a statement rather than a question.
Your attorney may also object to any speculative or inappropriate responses from witnesses. By keeping the prosecutor and witnesses honest, your attorney will make sure that the jury considers nothing but the facts of your case.
Cross-Examination Puts Your Attorney on the Offensive
While the prosecutor questions witnesses and presents evidence, your lawyer will be on the defensive. They can object, but are simply performing damage control.
When your attorney engages in cross-examination, they are leading the questioning of witnesses. They can take a more offensive tact and through their questioning may:
- Expose contradictions in a witness' testimony
- Expose that experts do not the knowledge, credentials, or experience necessary to be an authoritative voice
- Have witnesses admit to behaviors that reflect poorly on the prosecution's case (such as unethical investigative techniques or criminal activity by a witness)
- Have witnesses admit that their memory of events is not as clear as they initially presented
- Cast doubt on specific pieces of evidence
- Achieve other goals that benefit your defense
A good criminal defense lawyer is dynamic. They may have a preconceived plan for how to question certain witnesses, but will also emphasize any mistakes that the witness or prosecutor makes during questioning.
Federal cases in New Jersey and elsewhere rely on the strength of evidence and witness testimony. If your lawyer can discredit evidence and witnesses, they may sow the seeds of a dismissal or not-guilty verdict.
Following the Prosecution's Case and Cross-Examination, Your Lawyer Will Present Your Defense
The federal government must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to achieve a conviction. Your lawyer simply has to instill a reasonable doubt in the jury in order to secure a not-guilty verdict. Therefore, the prosecution may take more time and use more resources when making their case—though this is not always true.
Before presenting your defense, your attorney may move for the judge in your federal case in New Jersey to dismiss the case. At this point, the prosecution has made their case, and the judge can determine if there is sufficient evidence to acquit you of one or more charges. This outcome is relatively rare, but worth a shot in many cases.
When it is your attorney's turn to present your defense, they may focus directly on the points that the prosecution has made. Your attorney may:
- Present and question experts who interpret evidence differently than the prosecution's experts
- Present and question non-expert witnesses who contradict the testimony of the prosecution's non-expert witnesses
- Present evidence and exhibits that are favorable to your defense
Using facts, evidence, and testimony, your attorney should use this period to cast as much doubt as possible on your guilt.
Just as your attorney cross-examined the prosecution's witnesses, the prosecutor will likely cross-examine the witnesses that your attorney puts on the stand. You may even testify, though the wisdom of the defendant testifying varies from one case to the next.
The prosecutor in your case may have one final rebuttal before closing arguments begin.
Closing arguments are the bookend of a federal criminal trial in New Jersey, counterbalancing the opening statement. If your attorney presented a theme in their opening statement, they can re-emphasize it in their closing argument.
A defense attorney may hammer home the points that they believe will cast the most doubt on the prosecution's case. In many cases, the lawyer will list these points of defense in a bullet-style format, ensuring that the jury remembers them as they enter deliberations.
Your attorney's closing argument may:
- Emphasize the flaws in the prosecution's case
- Refer to specific evidence that casts doubt on your guilt
- Refer to testimony that was favorable to your defense
- Re-emphasize that the prosecutor must have proven your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and argue that the prosecutor failed to meet this burden of proof
- Issue a passionate demand that the jury finds you not guilty
An effective attorney will refrain from being overly emotional or theatrical yet will emphasize the gravity of the jury's decision.
The Jury Will Then Begin Deliberations
After the judge issues instructions to the jury, the 12 jurors assigned to your trial will retire to their quarters and begin deliberations. When determining whether to issue a guilty or not-guilty verdict for the charges you face, a jury must:
- Understand the specific nature of each criminal offense you stand accused of (and the jury can clarify this with the judge if any charge is unclear)
- Compare the offenses you're accused of with the evidence and testimony they have heard during trial
- Set aside any personal biases they may feel in favor of the objective facts, evidence, and testimony
- Reach a unanimous verdict
If a jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, they may return to their quarters numerous times at the judge's instruction. If the jury is still unable to reach a unanimous verdict, they are considered a deadlocked or “hung” jury. This will lead to a mistrial, at which time the prosecution will have to decide if it wants to re-try your case.
Jury instructions and deliberations are not a part of bench trials. If a single judge presides over your case, they will understand the burden of proof, and what they are expected to evaluate when reaching a verdict. The judge may deliberate, however, and return with a verdict.
A Mistrial Can Be a Positive Outcome for You
First, know that a mistrial due to a hung jury is statistically unlikely, with about 6% of cases seeing this fate. However, there is always a possibility of mistrial due to a deadlocked jury, misconduct by prosecutors or jurors, or certain other circumstances.
A mistrial is not an ideal outcome for a defendant facing federal criminal charges in New Jersey District Court. A not-guilty verdict is preferable, as the government cannot prosecute you for the same alleged offense once you have been found not guilty. The federal government can re-try your case when a mistrial results from a hung jury.
If a deadlocked jury or other circumstances lead to a mistrial, though, the prosecutor in your case will have a tough decision to make. Is it worth the time, expense, and risk of another mistrial to re-try you?
If the prosecutor chooses not to re-try your case and the statute of limitations on your alleged offense expires, the mistrial can achieve the same result as a not-guilty plea. Even so, your attorney will strive to obtain a not-guilty verdict.
What to Expect Following a Not-Guilty Verdict in a New Jersey Federal Court
Your best-case scenario has come to fruition: A jury heard your attorney's defense and returned a not-guilty verdict. What now?
While you may still need to complete certain administrative steps, your legal ordeal will be over. Because a jury decided to find you not guilty, you will:
- Face no legal consequences, including imprisonment or fines
- Avoid the stigma that comes with a criminal conviction
- Be free from re-prosecution, at least for the specific charges the federal government unsuccessfully tried you for
If you are fortunate enough to hear a verdict of “not guilty” on all federal charges filed in New Jersey, be sure to thank your attorney.
If You Hear a Guilty Verdict, Know That the Legal Process—And Your Fight to Clear Your Name—Is Not Over
“Guilty” is never a word that a defendant wants to hear. Whether you are found guilty of one or multiple federal criminal offenses, know that there is recourse to continue fighting. In the immediate future, though, you will face sentencing.
Following the verdict, your lawyer may file one or more motions as they continue fighting on your behalf. Your attorney may request that:
- A judge completes their own motion correcting an error in the trial: A judge can complete a motion that rectifies certain errors in a trial, even after the jury has entered a judgment. Some errors can be corrected through a judge's motion, while others may require an appeal.
- You receive a new trial: The Offices of the United States Attorneys explains that your lawyer can move for a new trial. However, the same office explains that this motion is “rarely granted”.
Your attorney may have the greatest chance of affecting material change during an appeal. Nevertheless, they may file post-trial motions to exhaust all of their legal options.
Hire an Attorney to Represent You Throughout Your Trial in New Jersey District Court
If your criminal case in New Jersey results in a trial, you will likely not want to represent yourself. A capable attorney can represent you throughout the complexities of a trial, and will work to convince a jury that you are not guilty.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has experience in New Jersey's federal district courts and will put forth a strong defense for you. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or submit your case details online.