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Minnesota Criminal Trial Practice

In Minnesota, a criminal proceeding usually has three phases: the arraignment, omnibus/pretrial, and trial phases. I’ve written about the first two phases, so here is a brief summary of how a criminal action, such as a DWI, assault, theft, or drug charge, might resolve if the parties cannot reach a plea agreement or if the case is not dismissed.

Minnesota Criminal Trial

A trial has a number of distinct phases. Typically, a trial will begin with jury selection (unless it’s a bench trial, in which case it will be heard by a judge). At jury selection the attorneys interview the potential jurors to ensure that the final panel will not consist of people with improper biases or prejudices. Jury selection is more of an art than a science, but basically, each side ensures that the final jurors do not know the parties individually, have not had prejudicial personal experience, and will commit to deciding each case impartially and according the given law.

After jury trial are the opening statements. The opening statements are the opportunities for the attorneys to describe the evidence that the jury will be hearing. It’s main function is to give the jurors a context for the upcoming evidence. The attorneys are not supposed to put forth arguments during their statements; rather, the attorneys should stick to describing what the evidence will show.

Next, is the prosecution’s case-in-chief. Here, the prosecution has an opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence to make its case. In a criminal trial, the witnesses may include police officers and forensic experts. After their testimony, the criminal defense attorney will have an opportunity to cross-examine them.

Following that is the defense’s case-in-chief. The defense now has an opportunity to call its witnesses and present its evidence. The defendant may or may not testify, consistent with the right to remain silent. Like before, the prosecution will have an opportunity to cross-examine the defense’s witnesses.

After each side presents its evidence, the sides will alternately be allowed to present rebuttal evidence. Typically, this evidence is restricted to only that which responds to evidence put on by the other side. New issues will typically not be allowed to be admitted.

Once rebuttal is finished, the court often gives the jury instructions. Sometimes, the jury instructions will be given after closing arguments, but it is usually helpful for the jurors to have a legal context for the closing arguments. The jury instructions are the principles of law that guide the jury’s deliberations. They combine basic principles, such as the requirement to be impartial, with the specific elements of the crimes and defenses raised.

Now, the attorneys will present their closing arguments. The closing arguments are the opportunity for the attorneys to use the evidence presented as support for their desired verdict. A good closing arguments puts the evidence into a narrative that is consistent with their desired verdict and highlights the inconsistencies of the other side’s purported narrative. Typically, the prosecution will go first, the defense will follow, and the prosecution will be offered a chance to reply.

After the closing arguments have been presented, the case is given to the jury for deliberation. The jurors are sequestered and they discuss what their thoughts are regarding the evidence and the arguments and try to reach a verdict. In a criminal case, the verdict must be unanimous. If the jurors continue to disagree, a hung jury is declared, and the prosecution has the option to try the defendant again at another trial.

Once the verdict is rendered, the trial is typically concluded. If the defendant was found not guilty, that is usually the end of the proceeding. If the defendant is found guilty, typically the case proceeds to sentencing, where a judge determines what the appropriate punishment will be.

Trials are not common as most cases lack a genuine dispute of fact and resolve via plea bargain. However, there are instances where a trial is necessary, and it is where the value of a good Minnesota criminal defense attorney is demonstrated.