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What is the criminal trial process like?

A judge holding a weight scale.
Judge holding a weight scale. Stock photo from iPhoto/Getty Images.

This article seeks to shed light on the different stages of a criminal trial process. The process has to do with those charged with offences under the Criminal Code of Canada. These offences are the same no matter where you live in Canada.

The criminal procedure that governs your trial may be different depending on how serious your charge is. For murder for instance, you may get a preliminary hearing first to see if there is enough evidence to even run a trial.

However, for the most part, the trial itself is conducted in the same way regardless of the type and severity of the offence.

Note that you may choose to plead guilty to a lesser charge and accept a lighter sentence. If you plead guilty, there is no need for a trial. The trial is for when you plead not guilty.

If you plead not guilty, you are asking the Crown prosecutor to summon enough evidence for the judge (or the jury) to find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the test for the Crown. If the court has any reasonable doubt as to whether you committed an offence, then it must acquit you.

Beginning of a trial

In the beginning of each criminal trial, the accused must be “arraigned.” This means the charge should be read and the accused must enter their plea: guilty or not guilty. When the plea is not guilty, the trial will start its course.

Crown’s case

The Crown prosecutor goes first. The Crown introduces physical evidence such as a weapon and also puts its witnesses on the stand. These Crown witnesses take the stand to help the Crown’s case against the accused. The Crown asks witnesses questions and their answers become evidence. This line of questioning is called examination-in-chief.

After the Crown asks questions, the defence lawyer (the accused’s lawyer) gets to ask witnesses questions too. The defence does this to poke holes in their answers and defend the accused.  This is called cross-examination. During the cross-examination, the defence tries to point out inconsistencies in witnesses’ answers and question their credibility.

After the Crown enters all of its evidence and the cross examination is done, the Crown must close its case. If the Crown closes its case, it will not be able to introduce further evidence, except in limited situations.

Defence case

After the Crown closes its case, the defence side may either:

  • Ask that the court dismisses the charges because the Crown has not provided enough evidence; or
  • Alternatively, if the Crown has provided enough evidence to possibly convict the accused, present the other side of the story to the court.

To present the accused’s side of the story, the defence lawyer often calls physical evidence (e.g. phone records) and/or puts witnesses on the stand in an effort to poke holes in the Crown’s case and create a reasonable doubt in the court’s mind.

Every time the defence puts a witness on the stand, the Crown has a right to cross- examine the witness. It’s only fair that both sides get to examine each other’s witnesses.

The accused may testify too. Note that as an accused, if you take the stand, you are giving the Crown the right to cross-examine you. The Crown may ask you hard questions to answer. Your lawyer will tell you whether or not it’s advisable to take the stand as the accused.

After the defence presents all of its witness testimony and other evidence, the defence side closes its case.

The court usually allows for both sides to make closing arguments and wrap up their side of the story.

Verdict

The judge (or the jury) will then review all the evidence and come up with a verdict (decision) of guilty or not guilty.  If the verdict is not guilty, the accused walks free. If the verdict is guilty, the trial proceeds to sentencing.

Sentencing

When it comes to what sentence the court will give, both sides can again make arguments. The sentence must be proportional to the crime. It is in the judge’s hands to ultimately decide the sentence. The defence may present to the court why the accused deserves a lighter sentence. The Crown may present to the court why the accused should get a harsher sentence. The judge hears submissions and comes up with an ultimate sentence.

Appeal

If the Crown or the accused do not agree with the court’s verdict or the sentence, they may appeal the conviction and/or the sentence to a higher court. The higher court does not conduct another trial, but looks to see if the lower court made an error that warrants a new trial. The higher court may even toss the conviction and sentence altogether or may confirm both. The higher court has the power to change the sentence too.

Read more:

Manitoba: The Criminal Process: Step-by-Step

British Columbia: How a Criminal Trial Works