Criminal & Civil Cases: What Happens in a Courtroom?

by Scott Grabel

A trial is where two or more parties present evidence and information to a court of law. Trials are held in courtrooms for both civil and criminal cases. A civil case takes place to settle claims or lawsuits as a person or multiple people. In a civil case, there is a plaintiff and a defendant. A criminal case occurs when charges are brought against a person by the government. During a courtroom trial, there are several people present including the judge, lawyers, defendant, court reporter, and others. Knowing the roles of the judge and other key players in a trial helps in understanding how a court trial works.

Who Can Be Found in a Courtroom?

The Judge

The judge is the person who presides over a trial from a desk called a bench, which is normally on an elevated platform at the head of the courtroom. A judge has five basic tasks during a trial. First, they are responsible for maintaining order in the court and presiding over all proceedings. The judge must also determine the legality of any evidence to be presented during the trial. Thirdly, the judge is responsible for giving the jury instructions on laws which apply to the case at hand as well as standards that must be maintained in deciding the case. In bench trials, a judge must determine the facts and decide the outcome of the case without a jury. The fifth and final task for judges is sentencing criminal defendants after they have been convicted.

The Lawyers

During a trial, there is a lawyer or lawyers for each party who can be found seated at the counsel tables which face the judge's bench. The task of each set of lawyers is to bring forth facts that paint their client in a positive light and prove their innocence. In the case of criminal trials, one of the lawyers actually works on behalf of the government. Occasionally, parties will represent themselves instead of hiring a lawyer, in which case the party is said to be acting pro se, meaning on their own behalf.

The Court Reporter

A court reporter is present during all trials taking place in a courtroom. They are seated near the witness stand where they type out the official record of the trial using a stenographic machine. Under federal law, every trial must be recorded word for word. The court reporter is also responsible for writing a transcript of the proceedings if any party requests a transcript or appeals the case. Transcripts are not made available to jurors as there is not enough time for them to be created.

The Defendants

During a criminal trial, defendants have the right to be present, and depending on the crime, are often required to be present in the courtroom. In civil cases, the defendant is allowed to be present but oftentimes they are absent from court.

The Court Deputy

There is always a court deputy present during a trial. Deputies are normally seated near the judge where they administer oaths to witnesses. The court deputy is also responsible for marking exhibits and helping the judge keep the trial in order and running smoothly.

The Witnesses

During a trial, witnesses are called to give testimony about disputed facts in the case. During testimony, witnesses sit on the witness stand, which faces the courtroom. Witnesses are asked to testify by one party in the trial and are therefore referred to as defense witnesses, government witnesses, or plaintiff witnesses.

The Jury

In criminal trials, there is usually a jury present. The jury consists of people who have been questioned beforehand and deemed to be able to provide an objective view. A jury consists of twelve members and often a few alternates in the case that any of the original jury members need to be dismissed.

During a court trial, the parties are allowed to present their cases using approved legal procedures. If a jury is present, they are then tasked with exploring the evidence presented during the trial even further to come up with a verdict.

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