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The Trial

What is the purpose of the trial?

Everyone accused of a crime is legally presumed to be innocent until they are convicted, either by being proved guilty at a trial or by pleading guilty before trial. This means that at the trial the prosecutor has to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty and must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant does not have to prove he or she is innocent and has the right to remain silent and that silence cannot be used against him or her.

Only a small percentage of criminal cases ever go to trial. At trial, each side has the chance to present evidence and arguments about the facts. A jury or a judge decides whether the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charges.

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What is a jury?

A jury is a group of citizens who:

In Alaska, the court randomly selects potential jurors from the list of adults who receive Permanent Fund Dividends. The judge and attorneys choose the jurors who serve for each trial from the pool of citizens called to court on a particular day. The jurors must presume that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Jurors can only hear certain facts of the case to avoid influencing them with information that is not relevant to the case.

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Do all criminal cases have jury trials?

The defendant has a right to have a jury of people from the community to decide their guilt or innocence if the conviction could result in a jail sentence, loss of a valuable license, or a large fine. Six-person juries hear misdemeanor trials in district court. Twelve-person juries hear felony trials in superior court.

The parties and judge may agree to waive a jury trial and have a bench trial, where the judge alone decides issues of fact and law. Usually, defendants choose to have a jury trial because they want a jury of their peers to hear the evidence and decide their guilt.

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How is a jury selected?

The process of selecting a jury is called voir dire (pronounced "vwar deer") which is a French word that means to determine qualifications. The judge questions jurors about their qualifications and the lawyers question each potential juror to determine whether they are biased or prejudiced and able to fairly consider the evidence. Attorneys often ask jurors about whether they can be fair and if pretrial publicity or strong personal views would influence their decisions. They may challenge a juror for cause, asking the judge to dismiss a person who they think cannot be fair or impartial. They also can make a peremptory challenge of a juror, excusing the juror without giving any reason why he or she should not sit on the case. In felony cases, each side has 10 peremptory challenges; in misdemeanor cases, each side has 3.

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What is the order of events during a trial?

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Does the defendant testify during the trial?

The defendant has the constitutional right to testify or not to testify at trial. In many cases the defendant will not testify because it is the prosecutor’s burden to prove the defendant committed the crime, not the defendant’s burden to prove he or she is innocent.

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Why does the jury have to leave the courtroom during the trial?

If there is a question about whether specific evidence follows the Rules of Evidence, the judge may have the jurors leave the courtroom so the lawyers can argue the issue and the judge will make a decision. This protects the jurors from hearing evidence that may not be admissible during the trial. Sometimes the parties agree on the record called a stipulation how to handle a particular piece of evidence. After the judge decides or the lawyers agree about the specific evidence, the jurors will return to the courtroom and either the lawyers introduce evidence or they are prohibited from discussing it.

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How does the jury decide?

After the defense and prosecutor finish, the judge instructs the jury, telling the jury about the laws and how to apply them to the facts of the case. The jurors leave the courtroom and go to the jury room where they meet in private to decide what facts the prosecution proved, to apply the law, and to decide whether to find the defendant guilty or not guilty.

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What does it mean when the jury returns a verdict?

Alaska requires that jurors reach a unanimous decision called a verdict. This means each jury must agree that the prosecutor did or did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime as charged.

If a mistake occurs during the trial or jury deliberations, the judge can order a mistrial, and the prosecutor can ask for a new trial.

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Rev. 30 April 2019
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