Breaking Down the Trial ProcessPosted: Updated:
Before a trial can begin, a defendant must be arrested and charged with a crime. In this case, George Huguely has been accused of murder in the death of fellow UVA student and lacrosse player Yeardley Love in May 2010.
After several hearings, legal motions and a grand jury indictment, the felony prosecution ends up in circuit court for trial. If there has been no plea agreement, either side (or the judge on his own) can request a jury trial. Jury trials take longer than judge trials, and in the Huguely case, the parties estimated that the case would take two weeks to try. It is hard to find a two-week block of time when no other cases can be heard, which is why the trial was set so long – 21 months – after the death of Yeardley Love.
NBC29 Legal Expert Lloyd Snook says criminal trials in Virginia often move faster than those in other states. He says this is purely cultural. "Two weeks is not very long for a trial in other parts of the country," said Snook.
Once the trial begins, the first item of business is jury selection, or voir dire – the process of asking jurors questions to see if they could be fair jurors in this case. If someone answers, "I couldn't decide this case solely on the law and the evidence," then that person will be struck for cause.
The size of the jury pool can vary. For a typical case, about 40 potential jurors are called; in this case, both because of the sensational nature of the charges and because of extensive pre-trial publicity, more than 300 people were summonsed to jury duty. Prospective jurors were required to answer a questionnaire, and about 160 were then called back for questioning this week.
Now, the judge oversees the prosecution and defense as they whittle down the members of that pool through questions asked of the jurors. In the usual case, the Court must choose 20, and each side would be allowed four peremptory challenges; voir dire may take a matter of hours. In cases that are expected to take more than a couple of days, the judge may select alternates, in case a juror becomes sick or has to stop serving for whatever reason. In this case, Judge Ted Hogshire has said that there would be three alternates.
The legal teams will ask the jurors questions, to find jurors that can be impartial and who can judge the case solely on the law and the evidence presented in the courtroom. Jurors are asked if they know the parties, have been represented by any of the lawyers, have heard about the case before, or have formed any opinion about the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Due to the high profile nature of this case, jury selection progressed slowly. While in most cases voir dire takes perhaps an hour or two, in this case voir dire has taken just over two full two days.
Once a jury is selected, court proceedings continue with opening statements. The prosecution and defense each get the chance to tell the jury what they believe the evidence will show. Opening statements may take as little as about 5 to 10 minutes, or as long as an hour.
The prosecution will now call its witnesses to testify. Except where the parties have agreed, or stipulated, that certain evidence is admissible, all evidence in the case will be submitted through a witness.
In this case, we expect that the Commonwealth's Attorney will call police officers to testify about the evidence collected at the crime scene, about photos that they took of the crime scene, and about the statement that George Huguely gave them. The Commonwealth will also likely call expert witnesses such as the medical examiner and DNA experts to testify about conclusions that can be drawn from the physical evidence. The defense has an opportunity to cross-examine these witnesses.
Depending on how much evidence has been collected and how many witnesses are called to the stand, the prosecution can take a few hours or a few weeks to present its case. We expect that the Commonwealth's Attorney will take 4 to 5 days to present his evidence.
Once the prosecution rests, the defense has its shot, though there is no obligation on the part of the defense to present any evidence at all. The Huguely team has intimated that they will also have expert witnesses, including doctors or medical experts, who may offer another theory about what the physical evidence means, and particularly about the cause of Yeardley Love's death. The prosecution also has a chance to cross-examine any defense witnesses.
The prosecution may also offer rebuttal testimony, to counter the defense evidence. For example, if the defense chooses to bring Yeardley's Love's medical records into question, the prosecution can bring a medical expert back to the stand during rebuttal to offer their take on that specific topic. Prosecution's rebuttal often takes hours, not days.
Once both sides have rested, a judge will give the jurors specific instructions on the law applicable to these charges. These instructions will explain each of the charges the Defendant faces, and how the jurors should consider the evidence to arrive at their verdict.
At this point, the prosecution and defense each present closing arguments, where the attorneys will explain to the jury how to apply the law to the facts. The prosecution begins and the defense follows. The Commonwealth also has the right to make a short rebuttal argument. In some states closing arguments occur before the instructions are given; Snook believes that putting the instructions first is preferable, because it allows the attorneys to make specific reference to jury instructions during their closing arguments.
The jury then enters into deliberations.
Deliberations can take minutes, hour or days. This all depends on how fast jurors can come to a consensus. "On average, for every day of evidence, the jury will be out an hour," said Snook.
The jury's decision must be unanimous; if the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, that is called a "hung jury," and there must be a retrial.
The verdict is announced in open court. If the Defendant has been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor, the trial then moves to the sentencing phase.
In the sentencing phase, the prosecution and the defense each may make a short opening about what the sentencing evidence will be. The prosecution may then present the defendant's criminal history and any "victim impact" evidence – testimony from Yeardley Love's family members about what her loss has meant to their family. The defense can offer mitigating evidence, and again, the prosecution may offer rebuttal evidence to respond to the defense evidence. All witnesses must be subject to cross-examination. The judge reads sentencing instructions to the jury, telling the jurors the sentencing ranges for the offense charged. Then each side may make a short argument about what the appropriate sentence should be. The jury then deliberates again, before returning to court and making a recommendation for sentencing. Sentencing deliberations may take minutes in an easy case, or hours in a tough case.
After the verdict is announced, the defense will usually request a pre sentence report, and a sentencing hearing will be held, probably two or three months after the trial. During that time, a probation officer will interview Huguely and will learn about his background. The officer will produce a pre sentence report, which will serve as the primary source of information at the sentencing hearing. As in the sentencing hearing at the trial, the prosecution may present victim impact statements and testimony, and the defense may present anything in mitigation. At that hearing the judge may reduce the jury-recommended sentence or he may impose it as recommended by the jury. He cannot increase the sentence over the jury's recommendation. George Huguely is charged with 6 felonies, the most serious of which is first degree murder. He could face life in prison if found guilty.
To learn more about the judicial system or NBC29 Legal expert Lloyd Snook: http://www.snookandhaughey.com
To learn more about the judicial system in Virginia, you can visit the state's website: http://www.courts.state.va.us/main.htm