In criminal trials, the burden of proof is always on the state. The state must prove that the defendant is guilty of all of the elements of the offense, beyond a reasonable doubt. Until this is done, the defendant is assumed to be innocent, and does not have to prove anything. In fact, it is not uncommon for a criminal defendant to simply remain silent, not present any witnesses or evidence, and argue that the prosecution did not meet its burden. However, these are instances where the defendant admits to committing the crime, but should not be punished because of some mitigating circumstance, such as self-defense or insanity. In these cases, the burden is said to “shift” to the defendant, and they are required to essentially prove the truth of the facts they claim.

Although each jurisdiction has its own nuances when it comes to criminal procedure and trials, most cases follow a typical process. The first step in this process is, of course, the commission of the crime and notification of the police. The police may investigate the crime and eventually make an arrest, once they believe they have probable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime. Once taken into custody the suspect is “booked”, which means his name and indentifying information are recorded, his fingerprints are taken, he is photographed and searched, and placed in a holding cell.

The next step is the charging phase. During this phases, the prosecuting attorney will review the statements made by the arresting officer and any other witnesses, and determine whether the suspect should be formally charged with the crime. The prosecutor may charge the crime as described by the arresting officer, charge a completely different crime or no crime at all.

Once a charging decision has been made, the suspect, who is now officially a defendant, must be brought before a judge for an initial hearing, or “arraignment”. The purpose of this hearing is to ensure that the Defendant is aware of exactly what he is being accused of, and what his rights are as a criminal defendant. In most cases, the Defendant will be required to plead to the charges. It is also at this hearing that the judge assigns bail. The amount of bail required typically depends on the seriousness of the crime he is accused of, as well as how likely the judge believes he is to flee. If the Defendant cannot come up with enough money to make bail, he must wait in jail until his trial.

The next steps can vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction and the type of crime. In most misdemeanor cases, a judge reviews the allegations and available evidence, and determines whether the accused can be made to stand trial for the crime. In most felony cases however, the government must obtain an indictment by a grand jury before proceeding to trial. A grand jury is a body of people who evaluate (and in some states gather) evidence, in order to determine whether a person should stand trial. Grand juries meet in secret, and only the prosecutor is allowed to present evidence or argument. In general, a defendant has no procedural rights in a grand jury review. If the grand jury determines there is enough evidence to put the accused on trial, it will hand down an indictment.

Once an indictment or complaint has been filed, and arraignment has occurred, the prosecutor and defense attorney will conduct pre-trial proceedings. This typically means plea bargaining, by which the Defendant offers to plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges or a favorable sentence. This is also the step in the process that defense attorneys may attempt to bring pre-trial motions to try to get certain evidence suppressed, or the charges dismissed altogether.

After all pre-trial matters have been disposed of, the parties proceed to the focal point of the criminal process, which is of course the trial. Although the Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury, some defendants choose to have their guilt or innocence decided by a judge, in what is referred to as a “bench trial”. After evidence is presented and the attorneys make their arguments, the jury meets in private to determine its verdict.