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Anatomy of a murder trial

Complex procedures rule intricate system.

Posted: March 30, 2008 12:50 a.m.
Updated: May 31, 2008 5:02 a.m.
For years, criminal trials have grabbed headlines and captivated people's attention. Locally, The Signal has covered the Esperanza Castro murder trial - the woman accused of killing her husband, Ramon

Castro, and leaving his dead body in a pickup truck at a Highway 14 overpass.

Murder trials are quite complex and time-consuming, but they are no different from other criminal trials. In fact, all criminal trials follow a basic yet rigid schedule.

While murder trials elicit its fair share of media and public attention, not too many people are aware of the bells and whistles of a murder trial.

"There is a lot of procedure involved with murder trials and criminal matters in general," said Szu-Pei Lu, a trial attorney in Los Angeles County. "There are no differences between murder trials and criminal trials. There is nothing particularly special about murder trials, procedurally. Overall, it is a rather intricate system."

Indeed, there are several elements that make up a murder/criminal trial. Below are the elements that, as a whole, make up the entire criminal trial.

Arrest and murder charges

In order for there to be a murder trial, there must be an arrest and a dead person. Once the arrest is made, the arresting agency - police department or sheriff - must book the person in custody and charge them with murder. There are varying degrees of murder that someone can be charged with - first or second degree murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. Once a person is charge with murder, those charges must be filed with the court.

Informal arraignment

The arraignment is the first court appearance for the murder suspect.

"This is the appearance where charges are formally read to the defendant," Lu said.

If not previously set, the court will set a bail amount, though it is set at the discretion of the judge in a murder trial.

Preliminary hearing

About seven to 10 days after the informal arraignment, the preliminary hearing takes place. This is the stage where the District Attorney's office will decide whether there is a case and if it is worth going to trial with the available evidence.

"At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must prove that the murder charges are valid," added Lu.

To prove the charges are valid, the prosecutor will generally call witnesses and present evidence to the judge in a court hearing. The defense, alternatively, will not call any witnesses.

Formal arraignment and plea

As in all criminal matters, the murder suspect will be offered the opportunity to enter a formal plea within 30 days of the preliminary hearing. The defendant may plead in one of three ways - guilty, not guilty or no contest. When a defendant pleads no contest, it is treated the same as a guilty plea. However, if the murder defendant would not be liable in civil court - wrongful death suit, for example.

The defendant may also "stand mute," which is treated the same as a not guilty plea. In this situation, the court will enter a not guilty plea on behalf of the defendant, where he or she elects not to speak at the arraignment.

Pretrial conference

Once the plea is formally entered, the next stage of a murder trial is the pre-trial conference. At this hearing, both the defense and the prosecutor meets with the judge to discuss the case. Attorneys on both sides use this meeting to file pre-trial motions.

Bench or jury trial

After the pre-trial conference, a determination will be made whether the defendant's trial will be heard by the judge or a jury. A "bench trial" is where the judge decides both the facts and the law. However, in a "jury trial," only the law is decided by the judge, while twelve jurors determine the validity of the facts and evidence. Not all murder trials are jury trials.

"Contrary to public opinion, a jury trial is not automatic," Lu added.

Voir dire (jury selection)

Most jury cases in California are heard in front of a jury. If a jury trial is selected, then the jurors must be selected. Days before the trial, a panel of jurors are randomly selected by the court. Once the panel is selected, the judge and both attorneys will ask each potential juror a set of questions in a process called "voir dire."

Through voir dire questioning, a determination is made whether each juror will be fair and impartial.

If, for some reason, an attorney does not believe a juror will be fair and impartial, then the lawyer may challenge that juror and have him or her removed from the pool. There must be a cause for most challenges.

In certain situations, the defense or prosecutor may use a limited number of "peremptory challenges" to remove a juror without cause or explanation.

Trial begins

Once the jurors are selected in a jury trial, the murder trial will usually start the next day that court is in session. Before the lawyers present their respective cases, the jurors are informed that the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and they must maintain that presumption until all the evidence has been presented. If it is a bench trial, the attorneys will make their arguments directly to the judge. When the trial begins, the prosecutor makes the first set of arguments, followed by the defense.

Opening statements

Whether or not it is a jury trial, both the prosecution and defense will present their opening statements. During opening statements, no arguments are made. Instead, attorneys on both sides are merely stating what the evidence will show.

Burden of proof

During the course of trial, the prosecutor's objective is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the alleged crime.

Conversely, the defendant generally does not have the burden to prove any elements of the case - though this is not absolute.


As soon as opening statements are completed, the prosecution is given the opportunity to call its first witness and commence with his or her arguments against the alleged murderer/criminal.

Witness are sworn in by the clerk of the court and make statements on the stand about an issue related to the trial. There are many types of witnesses - eyewitnesses, experts, investigators, the defendant's family members and, sometimes, the defendant themselves.

A witness will go through two sets of questioning - direct examination and cross-examination. Direct examination is when the witness is asked questions by the attorney that called them to the stand.

Cross-examination takes place after direct examination, where the opposing attorney has an opportunity to ask the witness questions.

A witness may also face re-direct examination or re-cross examination.

The extent will depend upon when attorneys on both sides feel there are no more questions to ask the witness.

A few tidbits about witnesses:

• Witnesses remain on-call throughout the trial until excused by the judge; • While they are on-call, witnesses remain under oath; • Finally, witnesses may not attend any portion of the case other than when they are called to the witness stand.


During witness testimony, it is common to hear an objection to a question asked by opposing counsel or an answer given by the witness.

There are hundreds of possible objections. When an attorney objects to a question or answer, the judge will either approve (sustain) or deny (overrule) the objection. If denied, then the objection is ignored and the questioning may continue as if nothing happened. However, if the objection is approved, then the opposing attorney's question or witnesses answer is stricken from the record and the jury or judge is not allowed to consider that testimony when it makes its decision.


After the defense has presented its case, the prosecution has a chance to response, or rebut, to arguments or evidence presented by the defendant. It is possible for the defense to respond to the prosecutors rebuttal, though both sides are not allowed more than one rebuttal.

Closing statements

After both sides present their evidence and make their rebuttals, the prosecutor and defendant will make closing statements, or a summary of each side's case.

In a jury trial, once closing statements are made, the jurors are given specific instructions on how to deliberate and analyze the case.

Conversely, in a bench trial, the judge will take the case into his chambers and make a determination on his own.


Once a jury deliberates the case, a result may or may not be reached.

There are three possible outcomes - guilty, not guilty or hung jury. A hung jury occurs when all 12 jurors cannot agree on an outcome. A guilty or not guilty verdict can only be reached by a unanimous jury.

However, in a bench trial, the judge will return a verdict of guilty or not guilty, since the judge is the only person "voting" during deliberations.

Hung jury

If the jurors cannot reach a verdict, they will be discharged by the judge, and the prosecutor must decide whether they will dismiss the charges or seek a new trial.


If all twelve jurors vote in favor of the defendant, they return a verdict of not guilty. An acquittal generally happens when the jurors believe that the prosecution's case did not prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Once a defendant is acquitted, the case is over. A prosecutor cannot appeal an acquittal.


Conversely, a jury may unanimously believe that the prosecution did prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on at least one charge, therefore returning a guilty verdict. If there are multiple charges, the jury may return verdicts of guilty on some charges but not guilty of others.

A convicted defendant does have the right to appeal the decision or request a new trial, though guilty verdicts are rarely overturned.

"Once convicted, the defendant has between a 3 and 5 percent chance of winning an appeal," Lu said. "The defendant must prove that the judge or jury violated a law or was otherwise unfair, but this is not easy to do. It's a pretty high bar."


Once a guilty verdict is reached, the final stage of the trial (aside from appeals) is sentencing. This hearing usually takes place a few weeks after the trial is over, and is a bench trial. Based upon the charges and the gravity of the crime, the judge will make a decision about how long the defendant's jail time will be.

Oftentimes, the defendant is allowed to present mitigating circumstances and have people speak on his behalf for the judge to factor into the sentencing.

Parties involved

During the trial, there are several people who are mainstays throughout the entire process. Most people are aware of the judge, attorneys, jurors and witnesses. However, there are also court reporters who maintains a transcript of what is said on the record during the entire trial, from arraignment to sentencing.

There is also a bailiff, who is generally an armed officer or deputy who "stands guard" over the courtroom. When the defendant is in custody during trial, it is the bailiff's responsibility to escort that person in and out of the courtroom.

Sitting next to the judge is a clerk, who usually performs the administrative functions of the courtroom, such as maintaining the calendar, answering phone calls and filing motions. The clerk also swears in all witnesses.

In some instances, there is also an interpreter for witnesses or defendants who do not speak or understand English.


While defendants theoretically have the right to a speedy trial, most murder trials take up to two years to complete, primarily due to scheduling issues with the court or attorneys.


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