Federal Criminal Trial Procedure
The General Timeline Of A Federal Criminal Case
Many factors will play a role in what the timeline of a federal criminal case will ultimately be. Compared to state cases, a federal case will usually be far more complex. These factors include:
- Larger investigations,
- More complex factual and legal issues,
- A longer discovery review process,
- Complex federal criminal statutes, and
- Multiple defendants.
The Federal Speedy Trial Act allows for just over two months before a case is supposed to be brought to trial, and typically the discovery review process isn’t even completed within that time frame. It takes a significant amount of time for the federal government to get discovery to the defense, for the defense to review it, and then for the defense to go over it with the defendant. It’s only once all of this happens that you can start to formalize the factual and legal steps that the defense can or should take.
So, the first step in a federal criminal case is discovery. How long discovery takes is going to play a significant role in how long the overall process is going to take. Discovery can very typically take multiple months. Only once discovery has been completed, including the review by all parties, can the defense begin to draft and file motions.
Filing and drafting motions can also take months to complete. The federal government is then given a few weeks to a month to respond to those motions and, rather frequently, a federal judge will allow the defense to reply to the government’s response. After that briefing schedule, a motion hearing is set and the motions are argued. The entire time period from the day the motions are filed, to the day they are decided, is excluded under the speedy trial act. Once the defense has a motion filed and until the court rules on that motion, the Speedy Trial Act is paused.
Sometimes the time that the defense asks to review the discovery is excluded from the speedy trial clock as well. A defendant must agree to waive his/her right to a speedy trial in order to get the time necessary to review that discovery.
After the court decides on any and all pre-trial motions, the court will then set a trial date. The trial is typically set several months out, and during this entire process, the court would expect both parties to be negotiating and exploring any potential resolution and plea. Given the complexity of this process, it isn’t unheard of for a federal case to take a year or longer to go through the system.
Federal Court Pre-Trial Procedures
The federal criminal trial procedure is far more formal than what you see at the state level. There is a significant amount of pre-trial procedure that takes place before a trial can begin in the federal court. This includes:
- Witness lists,
- Exhibit lists,
- Notice to use certain defenses,
- Disclosure of any experts or reports that the Parties plan to use,
- Written Voir dire or jury selection, and
- Motions in limine.
Discovery is the process of gathering all of the information and evidence of the case and sharing it with the both sides. The reciprocal discovery requirement of federal rule 16 means that the defendant is obligated to share any and all evidence, which can include:
- Data, and
- Tangible objects.
Witness lists and exhibit lists are pretrial pleading requirements that are placed on the parties by the rules. Under Federal Rule 16, both Parties (the government and the defendant) have an obligation to share any evidence they intend to use in their case with the other side. This means that any witnesses they intend to call or any exhibits they intend to show at trial must be available for the other side to review.
Notice to use certain defenses is also required by the defense. These certain defenses can include insanity, diminished capacity, or an alibi. Receiving this notice triggers the appropriate process. For example, if the defendant is going to use an alibi, the government then needs to provide a specific time, place, and date on which the offense allegedly took place.
Disclosure of any reports that the defense is going to use can include any physical examination, any mental examination, any scientific tests, or any scientific experiment that the defense intends to present as evidence at trial.
Voir dire or jury selection is the process by which a jury is seated. Voir dire, in particular, is the process of allowing the attorneys to question potential jurors and striking a certain number of them. Voir dire is not as common in federal courts as it is at the state level, but it can still occur.
Motions in limine refers to any potential evidentiary issues that both the government and defense are required and expected to identify prior to trial. The government and defense must file pre-trial motions in limine to have these issues addressed. Judges do not want and do not tolerate the arguing of evidentiary issues that were anticipated by the parties and should have been the subject of pre-trial motions in limine.
Federal Court Trial Procedures
The structure of a federal court trial:
- Opening statements,
- Prosecution witnesses,
- Defense cross-examination,
- Defense witnesses,
- Prosecution cross-examination,
- Closing arguments,
- Prosecution’s rebuttal,
- Jury instructions,
- Deliberation, and
Each trial will begin with opening statements by the government, which is also known as the prosecution. The purpose of the opening statement is to give the jury a roadmap or a preview of the case, what they intend to prove, how they intend to prove it, and what evidence they’re going to present.
Following the prosecution’s opening statement, the defense is then given the opportunity to give an opening statement. The defense is not required to give an opening statement, but will often choose to do so in order to give the jury an overview of their general defense and to remind the jury that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution.
The prosecution will then present its case to the jury by calling their witnesses. The prosecution’s witnesses will give testimony on behalf of the government to meet their burden of proof. After each witness is questioned by the prosecutor, the defense is given the opportunity to cross-examine them with their own set of questions. The defense’s questions must fall within the scope of examination, however, which means that they can only ask questions pertaining to the testimony already given.
Once the prosecution has questioned all of their witnesses and presented all of their evidence, they will rest their case in-chief. If any motions for judgment of acquittal are denied, the defense will then begin to call their witnesses and present their evidence. The prosecution will have the opportunity to cross-examine each witness.
Once the defense has rested their case, the prosecution will give their closing argument. During the closing argument, the prosecution is essentially telling the jury the story of what happened, pointing to the evidence and testimony that the jury has heard, and petitioning the jury to make a decision as to whether or not the defendant is guilty.
While they are not required to do so, the defense almost always will make a closing argument. This is their opportunity to present their own version of the events, referencing their witness testimony and evidence to the contrary of the government’s case.
The prosecution is then able to make a rebuttal argument, which is supposed to be limited to issues presented in the defense’s closing arguments.
Finally, the court will give the jury instructions. Federal criminal cases are driven by jury instructions. Each of the various federal circuits, such as the Sixth Circuit, has its own standard criminal jury instructions. Federal judges are becoming more and more willing and likely to deviate from the standard jury instructions, though. Most federal judges want the jury to understand the law that applies to a given case. It’s a relatively recent development in federal criminal cases that the judge is willing to give jury instructions other than those in the pre-written, standard form. They have been making jury instructions more specific to the individual case.
Following the reading of the jury instructions, the jury is then ordered to deliberate. The first thing that the jury will do before beginning deliberations is to select a foreperson. In a federal criminal case, the jury must come to a unanimous decision on the verdict. Throughout the deliberations, the foreperson can ask questions to the court as needed for clarity. Whenever the foreperson asks a question, both the defense and the prosecution are able to be present.
Deliberations can take anywhere between an hour and several weeks, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of charges they’re deciding.
At any time after the prosecution has rested its case in chief, the defense can file a motion for judgment of acquittal under federal rule of criminal procedure 29. This motion can be for a judgment of acquittal on any or all of the offenses for which the defendant is being charged, if the defense believes that the prosecution has not provided sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction.
If the judge determines that there’s not enough evidence to sustain a conviction for a particular charge, they will enter a judgment of acquittal before the defense even has to present their case. If there are any charges remaining, or if the judge denies all Rule 29 motions, the case will proceed and the defense will put forth their witnesses and evidence.
The defendant has the right to remain silent. They have no burden of proof and no obligation to present a defense at all. But, if they do, they present it after Rule 29 motions have been decided.
The Jencks Act
The Jencks Act (18 USC 3500) is very important to a federal trial. It is a federal statute that states that the government is not required to give witness statements or transcripts of any witness testimony prior to the trial beginning. If strictly enforced, the Jencks Act would cause significant and frequent delays in a federal trial. For that reason, most federal judges will require the disclosure of what is called “Jencks Act material” in advance of trial.
Once the witness is done testifying on direct examination, theoretically the Jencks Act material would be handed to the defense lawyer, and the attorney is given an amount of time that the judge thinks is appropriate for them to review that material before cross examination. Following this procedure, the defendant would be asking for hours or even days to review material after every witness, which would obviously prolong the trial process. So, to prevent such delays, most federal judges will require Jencks material to be turned over at the beginning of a trial or, sometimes, even weeks in advance.
When Jencks material is not disclosed prior to trial, it can create a real procedural twist. This is very unique to federal trials and significant because it puts the defendant in a significant disadvantage in terms of preparation.
With the guidance of a skilled attorney for Criminal Law Cases, you can have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your trial will be in the hands of an experienced professional. For more information on Criminal Law in Michigan, a free initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (248) 509-0056 today.