What Are the Stages of a Criminal Trial in California?

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Facing a criminal trial is nerve-wracking. The legal system is complex and can seem full of traps.

If you’ve been charged with a crime, you are probably wondering, “How do trials really work?”  Today we will discuss some of the steps in a criminal court trial in California.


The stages of a criminal trial begin with the arraignment.

An arraignment is a formal hearing where the judge makes sure you understand the charges and potential consequences.

They then ask the defendant to enter their plea. You can plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. “No contest” means you are not admitting guilt, but you do not wish to challenge the state’s case and will accept punishment.

If you plead guilty or no contest, the judge may sentence you on the spot or set your case for a sentencing hearing. Very few defendants plead guilty on the date of their arraignment, and almost never in a felony case. 

If you plead not guilty, you begin the pre-trial process. The judge will also set bail and the terms of the defendant’s release from custody.

Pre-Trial Process

The pre-trial process involves negotiations between your attorney and the prosecutor, readiness hearings (called “pre-trial hearings” in other counties), a preliminary hearing (in felony cases), and potentially other motion hearings as well.  

At a preliminary hearing, the judge decides if there is probable cause that a crime was committed and then whether there is reason to believe the defendant was the one who committed it. 

During the discovery process, attorneys exchange evidence, generally in the form of documents, photographs, and lists of tangible evidence recovered from the crime scene, if any. 

All evidence to be used at trial must be exchanged by the parties at least thirty days prior to the commencement of trial.   

Motions-in-limine are motions made by both sides that usually request to include or exclude certain evidence at the trial. For example, an attorney can use a motion-in-limine to ask to exclude their client’s prior conviction(s) to be used for impeachment purposes should they decide to testify.  


For misdemeanors and felonies, defendants have the right to a jury trial, though they can opt for a bench trial with only a judge deciding the ultimate question. 

However, most defense attorneys never waive the right to a jury trial, as the chances of at least hanging a trial increases exponentially with twelve jurors instead of one judge.  A judge decides contested criminal infractions.

Jury Selection

The jury weighs the evidence and decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty after all of the evidence and facts are presented.

Therefore, the goal of jury selection is to put together a jury as impartial as possible to prevent unfair prejudice to either side. 

A jury pool is selected randomly from the local community, and twelve jurors are ultimately chosen to hear the case. The judge and attorneys screen potential jurors by asking questions about their perspectives and life experiences in order to expose biases.

The judge can dismiss jurors based on their answers. Attorneys exclude jurors through challenges—they have an unlimited amount of challenges for cause (i.e., bias), or a limited number of challenges without cause.

Opening Statements

Each attorney makes opening statements about what they expect the evidence to show. They lay out a general outline of the facts of the case for the jury.  No argument whatsoever is allowed during the opening statements.    

Evidence and Witness Testimony Presented

Next, the attorneys present their evidence and witness testimony. During direct examination, an attorney will call their own witness to tell their story.

The other side will then cross-examine the witness and attempt to weaken their credibility. Attorneys do this by attempting to poke holes in the witness’s story or exposing inconsistencies in their testimony.

The first attorney can then redirect for a chance to repair any damage done during cross-examination. When both sides have presented all their evidence and witness testimony, they “rest” their case.

Closing Arguments

Finally, the attorneys present their final summaries of the case, summaries of the evidence, and arguments from their point of view in a last effort to persuade the jury.

Jury Instructions

The judge explains the law to the jury and the elements they must consider for each charge. The judge also instructs on the standard of proof that must be met by the prosecution to prove guilt.

In criminal trials, this burden of proof is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”  

Jury Deliberation and Announcement of the Verdict

The jury discusses the case privately and applies the law as instructed to the facts and evidence. They must decide as a group whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

If so, they should find the defendant guilty. If not, they should find the defendant not guilty. After making this decision, they announce the verdict to the judge via their signed jury verdicts.

If they cannot come to a unanimous agreement, it is a hung jury, and a retrial can happen with a different jury.

Sentencing Hearing

If the defendant is found guilty, each side argues to the judge and explains their opinion of an appropriate sentence in the particular case. The ultimate decision on sentencing is up to the judge.


The parties can appeal unfavorable outcomes to a higher court.

Grounds for appeal include the assertion that there was not enough evidence to support the verdict, or that legal or procedural mistakes were made that affected the outcome.

The appellate judges (generally a panel of three justices) review the record and either affirm the verdict or send it back to the lower court for new proceedings.

Contact the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC 

It is crucial to have a strong defense attorney who is familiar with criminal case procedures to represent you at all stages of your criminal court case.

The team at the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, specializes in criminal defense and has well over 100 jury trials under their belts.

Our attorneys will evaluate your case, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and figure out the best strategies for your defense. Contact us to schedule your consultation. 

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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