If a person accused of a crime in NSW pleads not guilty to an indictable offence, then their matter will ordinarily proceed to a trial before a jury in the NSW District or Supreme Court. A jury hears evidence, applies the law as directed by the judge, and decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty of a crime. In very limited cases, a case may be heard by a judge alone instead of a jury.
The purpose of a jury trial
The accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. A suspicion that the accused may be guilty is not enough; the prosecution must prove each essential element for each particular charge.
When an accused pleads not guilty and takes their matter to trial, they are denying each allegation made by the prosecution and it is the jury’s responsibility to decide whether the prosecution has proved the elements of the charges.
At a jury trial, the prosecution must prove that the accused is guilty of the offences beyond reasonable doubt. If the jury has a reasonable doubt, then they must dismiss the charge.
Role of the judge at a jury trial
While jury members decide the facts of a case, the judge will ensure that all the rules of evidence and procedure are followed. The judge will provide directions to the jury, instructing them on the legal principles that are relevant to the case and explaining how they should be applied to the issues which they have to decide. The judge must ensure the trial is fair and that the law is applied correctly.
What happens at a jury trial?
The prosecution will open the case by outlining the charges and the evidence they intend to present. The defence may also make an opening address to the jury about matters that they think are appropriate.
The prosecution case
The prosecutor represents the police or the state. They will tender evidence and call witnesses in an attempt to prove that the accused committed the crime.
When the witnesses first give evidence, they are giving “evidence in chief” and the defence may object to questions asked. After the prosecutor has finished, the defence may cross-examine the witness. This means that they will ask the witness questions in an attempt to cast doubt on the witness’ evidence and to confirm the points that support the defence’s case.
The prosecutor will then be able to re-examine the witness by asking further clarifying questions. After all witnesses have given evidence, the prosecutor will close their case.
The defence case
The defence will then also tender evidence and call witnesses.
The accused themselves will normally give evidence first, and their lawyer will ask questions about their recollection of events. The prosecution will cross-examine the accused in an attempt to confirm the prosecution case and cast doubt on evidence of the accused.
For example, if the accused participated in an interview with the police and then gives a version of events at trial that don’t match the police interview, then very little weight will be placed on their credibility and reliability.
In some matters, the defence may decide not to call any defence witnesses or tender evidence at all. Rather, the defence case will be based simply on the fact that the prosecution has failed to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. Remember, the onus and burden of proof falls on the prosecution.
After the defence case is complete, both the prosecutor and the defence will make closing submissions summarising their case to the jury.
The judge will sum up the case and give directions. The jury will deliberate and are expected to return a verdict of guilty or not guilty. It may take days or weeks for the jury to decide.