Trial Begins with Opening Statements
A trial begins with opening statements by the attorneys for the litigants (the parties in the lawsuit). The plaintiff (the party suing) has the burden of proof in the case. This means the plaintiff must prove the allegations in his or her complaint in order to win the case. The standard of proof in a civil lawsuit is a preponderance of the evidence (the facts are more in favor of the plaintiff than the defendant, the party being sued). In a criminal prosecution, the government is the plaintiff. The government has to prove a criminal defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which means proof of such a convincing character that a juror has no substantial doubt of the defendant's guilt.
Purpose of Opening Statements
The plaintiff's attorney makes an opening statement first. The purpose of the opening statement is to introduce the case to the jury and to tell the jury about the evidence that will be presented in the case. Opening statements must be about the facts that will be proved by the evidence. They cannot be used to argue the case. After the plaintiff's attorney has made an opening statement, the defendant's attorney makes an opening statement. The defendant's attorney previews what the defendant's evidence will show in the case. Again, the defendant's attorney cannot argue the case.
The attorneys for each side present closing arguments at the end of the trial. The plaintiff's attorney gives the first closing argument. In the closing arguments, the attorneys summarize the evidence. They also discuss any reasonable inferences or conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence. The plaintiff's attorney tries to show the jury how the evidence proved what the plaintiff alleged in the case. The attorneys cannot discuss evidence that was not introduced at trial or talk about issues outside the case. The attorneys can, however, comment on the instructions that the judge will give to the jury. They can point out how the instructions relate to the evidence. The defendant's attorney identifies any defects in the plaintiff's case and discusses facts that support the defendant's position. The plaintiff's attorney is then given an opportunity to make a final argument called a rebuttal. After the plaintiff's attorney tries to rebut or negate the points raised by the defendant's attorney, the case is submitted to the jury for a verdict.
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