The Anatomy of a Murder Trial

EDITOR’S NOTE: With formal jury selection in the federal capital murder trial of Eugene J. Talik set to begin Tuesday in Wheeling, former U.S. Attorney William A. Kolibash discusses the sequence of events that will evolve into a final verdict in the case. Talik could face the death penalty if he is convicted of the May 25, 2006 murder of Valley Grove resident Kelly Jo Elliott.


WHEELING–A murder trial has many elements.

To an accused person, the results of a trial may mean loss of freedom or even death.

Collateral damage could involve devastation to the families of the accused and the victim.

Jury members, however reluctant, get an unforgettable glimpse of the criminal justice system and may be asked to make a gut-wrenching, life-or-death decision.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers hone their courtroom skills in pursuit of a favorable verdict.

A judge presides over it all.

William A. Kolibash, a former U.S. attorney in Wheeling from 1981 to 1993, explained the anatomy of a typical criminal trial.

“Once a person is charged with a crime, he or she becomes a defendant who is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty by a jury,” Kolibash said. “It is the burden of the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Legal maneuvering starts before the case finds its way into a courtroom

In what’s known as the discovery process, attorneys from both sides exchange information and evidence they intend to present at trial.

Kolibash said “federal rules of criminal procedure details what the prosecution must disclose and what they can withhold.”

He said both sides ask the judge in advance of trial to admit or exclude certain evidence.

Kolibash offered the following sequence of events that make up a trial:

? Jury Selection. A pool of potential jurors is questioned by the judge and attorneys to determine if any of them has knowledge of the case, has a personal interest with anyone involved in the trial or if there is anything that could affect their ability to have an impartial review of the evidence.

The process continues until 12 people are seated as jurors. Ample alternates remain in the courtroom in the event one or more of the original jurors become ill or must be excused.

? Jury Charge. The judge gives the jury members preliminary instructions laying out the ground rules of their service. They typically are told not to discuss the case among themselves or with anyone else, not to watch, read or listen to news media reports of the trial, and not to conduct personal investigations about facts of the case.

The jury is told to consider only evidence, exhibits or testimony presented during the trial.

? Prosecution’s opening statements. The prosecutor tells the jury what evidence he or she will present to convince them of the defendant’s guilt.

? Defense’s opening re-marks. The defense attorney will talk about how he plans to show the prosecution’s case is not strong enough to warrant a conviction.

In some cases, defense attorneys reserve their opening remarks until a later part of the trial when the defense begins its case.

Opening statements are not to be considered as evidence for the jury to consider.

? Prosecution case. The prosecution presents exhibits, evidence and witnesses through direct examination.

The defense may cross-examine prosecution witnesses and the prosecution may ask more questions of the witness through re-direct examination.

? Defense case. The de-fense attorney may present evidence to discredit the prosecution’s case.

The defense may choose to stand on the defendant’s constitutional presumption of innocence and decline to put on additional evidence.

If the defense chooses to present evidence the prosecution may present rebuttal evidence to contradict what the defense has said.

? Prosecution closing ar-gument. The prosecution summarizes the evidence and explains why the jury should render a guilty verdict.

? Defense closing argument. The defense summarizes the evidence and explains why the jury should render a not guilty verdict or return a verdict on a lesser charge.

? Prosecution rebuttal. The prosecution has the last word in trying to convince the jury the evidence presented supports a guilty verdict.

? Jury instructions. The trial judge tells the jury about what law should be applied to the case so they can apply the facts of the case to the law.

? Jury deliberations. The jury goes into a private room and tries to reach a verdict. All 12 jurors must agree on a verdict to be derived without a reasonable doubt.

? Sentencing. If a guilty verdict is rendered, the court may sentence the defendant immediately or schedule a sentencing date.

In cases where the death penalty may apply, the jury is asked to determine if the defendant should be put to death.