How Do Trials Work in Texas Criminal Cases?

Under what circumstances would my case go to trial?

Every criminal case will be resolved by either dismissal, trial or plea agreement. A dismissal is always the goal. However, in virtually all cases, only the prosecutor can dismiss the case. An aggressive criminal defense attorney will work hard to make a dismissal more likely by challenging the evidence, law and obtaining favorable witness statements, but if your case is not dismissed, you will likely have to choose between a trial or a plea agreement. If a satisfactory plea agreement cannot be negotiated, then a case will go to trial.

Plea agreements are agreements to resolve a case for an agreed upon sentence, worked out in advance with the prosecutor. For example, in an assault family violence case a prosecutor might offer to place a defendant on probation for a period of time. In more serious cases, such as a DWI involving a fatality or a case involving a serious sexual offense, the offer might involve jail or prison time.

Pleading guilty and having the judge assess punishment is often possible too. In Texas, this is known as pleading guilty without an agreed recommendation. Legally, the prosecutor must waive her right to a jury trial and “allow” a defendant to plead guilty directly to the judge, but in many cases, prosecutors do not oppose this. However, it is often difficult to predict what the sentence will be from judges, so it is important a criminal defense attorney is familiar with the judge and his history of sentencing similar offenses. 

A defendant must weigh any plea against the likelihood of winning a trial, and the likely sentence if the trial is lost. For non-citizens, the immigration consequences should also be considered. Making the decision to go to trial can be thought of as a cost-benefit analysis. A common scenario that results in a trial is where a defendant feels that a plea will result in the same result as a lost trial (either because probation is likely either way, or because a bad result, like prison, is likely either way). Of course, every situation is different and a decision to go to trial should only be made after carefully and thoroughly reviewing the evidence and any plea agreements with a criminal defense attorney.

What are the stages of trial in a Texas criminal case?

In Texas, criminal trials are split into two phases – the guilt/innocence phase and the punishment phase (if there is a guilty verdict). When most people think of a jury trial, they think of the guilt/innocence phase since that is where the jury hears the alleged facts of a case from live witnesses and decides on a verdict.

The first stage of the guilt/innocence portion of a trial is called voir dire. In this stage of the trial, the prosecutor and the defense attorney are given the opportunity to address all potential jurors regarding any issues that they believe might be relevant to the case, and to ask questions to uncover views and biases that could affect their ability to be fair. In a DWI case, for example, a defense lawyer should ask the potential jurors if they have ever been arrested for DWI, or had any family members who were injured by an intoxicated driver. The questions a defense attorney will ask should be tailored to the specific offense at issue as well as any facts unique to the case. In all cases, it is important that the defense attorney emphasize that the standard of proof in a criminal case is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense attorney should let the jury know that this is the highest burden in the law and much higher than what is needed to win a civil case, or even to terminate parental rights.

After both sides address the entire group of jurors, they are then permitted to make strikes. This means that they can eliminate jurors from the pool. There are two grounds to eliminate jurors: strikes for cause and peremptory strikes. Strikes for cause are reasons to eliminate a juror that have to do with a juror’s ability to be a fair juror under the law. For example, if a juror says that he always believes the police no matter what, then that juror should be eliminated for cause since he cannot follow the legal principle that says that all witnesses should be treated equally and judged only according to their testimony. Peremptory strikes, on the other hand, are more broad and each side will be given a certain number to eliminate jurors they believe might not be good for their side. The jurors who are left after this process will be the jury for the entire trial.

Once the jury is selected, the trial begins. The first stage is the opening statement. Under the law, the opening statement is supposed to be a preview of what each side believes the evidence will show. Attorneys are generally not permitted to make an argument during the opening statement since they are only supposed to discuss the facts and not draw conclusions. Some attorneys refer to an opening statement as a “roadmap” to a trial.

After that, the sides present evidence. In a criminal case, it is the burden of the prosecutor to attempt to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Because it is the prosecutor’s burden, the prosecutor will present evidence first. Evidence generally is presented in the form of a live witness, such as a police officer or person who has first-hand knowledge of the facts. When a witness is presented in a trial, the person who called the witness will ask questions first. Then the opposing side will be permitted to cross-examine witness. For the defense, an effective cross examination of the State’s witnesses is critical to obtaining a not-guilty verdict.

An effective cross-examination takes great experience, very thorough preparation and considerable skill. Great thought should be put into what questions are asked, when they are asked, and how they are asked. The goal is usually to show that a witness is lying, mistaken or biased. Criminal defense attorneys spend entire careers mastering the art of cross examination.

After the prosecutor is finished presenting his witnesses and evidence, he will inform the court that he is finished with his case. The defense may then present its evidence. Because it is the prosecutor’s burden, the defense does not have to present any evidence or witnesses at all (which is a point that should be made clear to the jury during the jury selection phase of the trial). But if the defense chooses, it can present its own witnesses and even the defendant. A smart defense lawyer will typically address a defendant’s decision to not testify during the jury selection phase of the trial. One way to address this is to ask the jury to list all of the potential reasons an innocent person might not wish to testify.

The testimony of the defendant will often be the most dramatic moment of a trial. Most defendants in criminal cases do not testify. Often they do not testify because they can be impeached by prior criminal history that would only be heard by the jury if they decide to testify. In some cases, a defendant might be extremely anxious testifying and come across as dishonest or unsympathetic. Still in other cases, a defense attorney will advise a defendant that his testimony is not needed, and that taking the stand is an unnecessary risk.

After both sides are given the opportunity to present evidence, both sides will rest. Once both sides have rested, each side will be permitted to give a closing argument. Unlike the opening statement, a closing argument can be more than a summary of the facts – it can include argument about what those facts mean. Since it is the State’s burden, the prosecutor will normally be given the first and last opportunity to argue. Again, closing argument is an art and can be critical to obtaining a favorable verdict.

Once closing arguments have been made, the jury will retire to a private area to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The jury will be issued jury instructions from the court, which explain the law involved in the case and how the jury should go about reaching a verdict. Deliberations can take minutes or days depending on the facts of each case, and the perceived strength of the evidence of or lack of evidence.

A not guilty verdict will end the trial. If there is a guilty verdict, however, then the sentencing phase of a trial will begin. In Texas, criminal defendants will choose whether the judge or jury will assess punishment in the event of a guilty verdict. This choice is made in writing before the trial begins. The sentencing phase of a trial can be thought of as a trial in itself, but just on the issue of what the appropriate punishment should be. A defendant’s criminal past can be introduced at this stage to get a more severe punishment (typically evidence of prior convictions or bad acts is not admissible during the guilt/innocence stage of the trial). A sentence in a criminal case can range from a fine to life in prison, depending on the type of crime alleged and the background of the defendant.

This above is meant to be a very general introduction to how criminal trials were in Texas. Criminal jury trials are extremely complicated. Attorney Jose Ceja has tried over 50 cases as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney and is an excellent choice to defend your case and advise you on whether it is in your best interest to go to trial. Call today for a free consultation.