Federal Criminal Trials

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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A person accused of a federal offense will undergo a federal criminal trial. Though the outcome – an innocent or guilty verdict – is the same in a federal trial, the procedures are quite different from criminal proceedings on the state level. Ultimately, though federal prosecutions are on the rise, there are not as many federal criminal trials as in past years, with figures declining from 15 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions to as little as 5 percent in recent years; this is mostly due to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which reward guilty pleas.

A federal criminal trial is governed by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. These state that a case must be brought before a grand jury for indictment before proceeding; if the grand juryreviews the evidence and thinks the case should proceed, charges are brought and the case is either brought before a regular jury or by a judge if requested by the defense. In either case, the burden of proof rests upon the prosecution in a federal criminal trial. This means that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charge. A federal jury must unanimously agree on a guilty or not-guilty verdict.

Nobody is required to testify at their own trial; the Fifth Amendment allows a defendant to choose not to be a witness against themselves. However, if a defendant agrees to submit to the defense’s questioning, he or she must also submit to the prosecution’s. When a guilty verdict is rendered, the judge determines a sentence at a separate hearing. The defendant may then appeal his or her case; however, an appellate case does not determine whether the defendant is innocent or guilty; only if any laws were broken in the course of the federal trial.

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