How is a federal criminal trial different than trial in a state court?
Federal Criminal Trials
“I want the truth.”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
Whether our impression is formed from being a witness or a juror in a real-life case or watching a movie or tv show, we have some sense of how jury trials work. Entertainment examples are numerous. For examples, most people have seen an episode of Law and Order that depicts a murder trial or the movie ‘The Accused’ which shows fictionalized portions of a sexual assault trial. More recently, ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ has become popular in its depiction of the famous O.J. Simpson trial and circumstances surrounding it.
State Crimes vs. Federal Crimes
However, there are other jury trials that are conducted based upon an entirely different sovereignty and system. That is… the federal system. Many state crimes involve conduct with which we are familiar such as murder, burglary, sexual assault, kidnapping, driving under the influence, theft, or robbery.
Federal offenses can be similar. Offenses such as bank robbery, drug distribution, or possession of child pornography involve conduct we readily understand to be illegal. However, they are generally more complex and can involve allegations of offenses such as wire fraud, mail fraud, tax evasion, Medicaid/Medicare fraud, money laundering, extortion, conspiracy, and structuring.
Trials in the State and Federal Systems
Both state and federal courts afford accused persons the right to have a jury trial. However, state trials are very different than federal trials. The following are some important differences between the two systems (besides, as mentioned earlier, the underlying criminal charges are often very distinct).
To set the scene, think of the state trial depicted in My Cousin Vinny. In that film, attorneys walked around the courtroom extensively. They also questioned jurors extensively. Exhibits weren’t listed in advance and testimony wasn’t necessarily known before trial. While it was just a film, My Cousin Vinny shares a lot of commonalities of actual state trials. As the following list will illustrate, however, federal trials are quite different.
State jury trials often involve extensive jury selection proceedings. Federal criminal trials don’t.
State trials give true regard for the reality that the life experiences and biases and opinions of prospective jurors matter. Thus, they allow attorneys for both sides to ask many questions along a wide range of topics. To some extent, hypothetical questions are allowed to properly explore whether a prospective juror can follow the law.
Federal trials are different. In most courts, lawyers are barely afforded time to talk to prospective jurors. The judge does most of the talking. It is not unheard of to only allow the attorney to ask a single question to the jury panel, and it is common to have a requirement that
The most striking distinction rests in that federal courts almost discourage questioning jurors about opinions or biases.
Lawyers in state trials are generally allowed to move within the courtroom during questioning and argument. That is far less common in federal courts.
In every court, the judge reigns supreme. But in federal court, the judge is truly king or queen. As a result, attorneys do not walk around the courtroom while questioning witnesses. Instead, they are relegated to a lectern. Allowing movement is perceived as giving too much deference to attorneys and allowing too much emotion, sympathy, and/or rhetoric.
One judge in the Northern District of Texas actually forbids expert witnesses from looking directly at jurors while testifying. In contrast, state courts oftentimes allow expert witnesses to approach an easel or smart board and, in essence, lecture the jurors.
Re-direct and re-cross examination are more extensive in state trials. They are limited in federal court.
Since state trials are more geared towards arriving at the truth and less designed to render sterile proclamations of guilt, they allow free reign among attorneys to question about any relevant fact. Federal courts, however, limit cross-examination to the specific topics discussed under direct examination. It’s similar to enforcing debate rules and mock trial precepts. Further, most federal courts prohibit re-cross examination. That means that once a witness testifies on redirect examination, his or her testimony is concluded. State courts, on the other hand, let the attorneys go back and forth until every relevant matter is discussed.
Defense witness lists are often not required in state trials. They are often required in United States courts.
Because state trials are designed to honor the fact that defendants are presumed innocent with no burden to prove such, defense attorneys are not required to divulge their witnesses or exhibits before trial. This is also true because state courts respect the fact that defendants have a constitutional right to challenge charges in any legal manner, defendants are not required to give a playbook to the prosecutor. Federal crimes, however, are different. Federal defense attorneys have to prepare and share witness and exhibit lists before trial.
Judges, not attorneys, generally draft jury instructions in state cases. The opposite is true in federal criminal trials.
In state cases the judge will provide instructions for the jury. In federal cases, however, the attorneys draft instructions in advance. This is especially harmful to defendants contemplating a particular defense but not wanting to divulge it to prosecutors in advance. In the federal system that is not a realistic possibility.
State trials almost always involve only one defendant. Many federal trials involve multiple defendants and large conspiracies.
Since most state crimes are committed by individuals, only one defendant is present. Federal offenses often involve schemes and conspiracies with many actors. For example, a mortgage fraud may involve a mortgage broker, several straw purchasers, and an appraiser. If several of these persons request a trial, they will be tried together. Or as another example, a drug trafficking organization may include multiple suppliers, transporters, money launderers, and street level dealers. They too would be tried together.
Also because federal crimes often involve large numbers of participants the name of the game becomes to try to get defendants to turn on each other. While this is true at the state level, it is prevalent in the federal system. This is not to say that state criminal trials never involve multiple defendants. Certain murders, robberies, and thefts involve several persons. Typically, however, these cases often include only one defendant at trial at one time.