What is an Opening Statement in a Criminal Trial?

What is an Opening Statement in a Criminal Trial?

With any type of criminal case, the prosecuting attorney will have the opportunity to make what is known as an opening statement. While sometimes considered nothing more than a formality, the content of that statement has a direct bearing on what is to follow. For this reason, lawyers tend to place a great deal of emphasis on preparing statements that are designed to capture the attention of the jury. Here is what everyone should understand about this statement.

More Than a Statement of Intent

There are those who believe an opening statement in a criminal trial is more or less a pledge by the prosecution to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. While stating that intention is certainly part of what will be included, the opening statement is much more.

This statement provides the prosecutor with the chance to invite jurors to make use of all their senses in order to understand the gravity of what has taken place. To that end, the lawyer will make use of descriptive language which helps to conjure up images of the time, place, and circumstances surrounding the commission of the criminal act. Certain aspects of events that allegedly took place prior to the act may be lingered upon for additional effect. There may even be detailed descriptions of the injuries sustained by the victim after an attack or the purported actions of the accused in the aftermath of the event.

After providing a vivid image of what the prosecution proposes are the actual chain of events, it’s not unusual to move on to cultivating an image of the victim that is as positive as possible. Calling attention to facts about personality, charitable actions, and other attributes serve to make the victim more of a person and less of a statistic in the eyes of the jurors. At the same time, attention may be called to aspects of the defendant’s character that are considered less appealing.

Are There Limits on What Can Be Said During the Opening Statement?

It’s important to remember that the opening statement is supposed to provide an idea of what is to come during the trial. The flow of the statement must be logical, stay on point without wandering into areas that may or may not have some bearing on the case, and in general serve as assurance that the prosecutor is invested in making sure justice rules the day.

While the prosecutor does have some leeway in presenting a certain amount of speculation in the statement, it must be presented as such. Only facts that are related to the series of events described may be presented as facts during this time. The need to clearly distinguish between what the prosecutor believes happened and what facts are already assembled and ready for presentation to the court is one of the reasons why so much care must be taken with the wording.

How About Props?

Can props be used as part of the opening statement? The answer is yes. It’s not unusual for prosecutors to make use of objects that tell something about the victim. The object could be a photograph showing the victim in the prime of life or surrounded by family. Even something as simple as a plaque received for some type of community act could be included. Typically, objects are only used to enhance the reputation of the victim in the eyes of the jury.

What Effect Will a Poorly Prepared Statement Have?

Unless the opening statement is prepared carefully, it could have an impact that is different from what the prosecutor hoped. Instead of cultivating a sense of good feeling toward the victim, jurors may be left with some degree of indifference or possibly animosity.

The jury may also be unclear on what the prosecution is presenting as the most likely series of events leading up to the injury or death of the victim. That initial confusion could mean related the evidence to a series of events may be more difficult as the trial continues.

Even attempting to vilify the defendant past a certain point could make a negative impression on the jury and make it harder to convince them that the evidence presented by the prosecution later on is really the entire story.

While it’s true that the defense will also have the chance to make a statement before the trial proper gets underway, never underestimate the power of the prosecution’s opening statement. It will be remembered throughout the trial and often sets the tone for what is to come.

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