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Federal Criminal Trials vs. State Trials

By Benson Varghese

Last Updated: July 19th, 2021
Published on: February 24th, 2016

Federal Criminal Trials

“I want the truth.”

“You can’t handle the truth!”

A Few Good Men (1992)

Whether your impression is formed from a real-life scenario or watching a movie or television show, most of us have some sense of how jury trials work. Basically, a group of citizens listen to evidence and decide whether someone is guilty of a crime, right?

And while that is certainly true, what most people don’t realize is that the proceedings differ in state and federal court. While both state and federal courts afford an accused persons the right to have a jury trial, there are actually some important differences between the two systems.

What are the Differences Between State and Federal Crimes?

Most crimes that make the daily news are state cases that involve conduct such as murder, burglary, sexual assault, kidnapping, driving under the influence, theft, or robbery. The cases are tried in state court. Federal crimes are generally more complex and can involve allegations of wire fraud, mail fraud, tax evasion, Medicaid/Medicare fraud, money laundering, child pornography, extortion, conspiracy, and structuring. They are tried in federal court.

What are the Differences Between Federal and State Criminal Trials?

To set the scene, think of the state trial depicted in the popular movie, My Cousin Vinny. In that film, attorneys walked around the courtroom extensively. They also questioned jurors extensively. Exhibits weren’t listed in advance and testimony wasn’t necessarily known before trial. While it was just a film, My Cousin Vinny is a pretty good example of the proceedings of a state trial. Here’s how federal trials are different:

State jury trials often involve extensive jury selection proceedings. Federal criminal trials don’t.

State trials take into account the life experiences, biases and opinions of prospective jurors. Attorneys for both sides are allowed to ask prospective jurors many questions along a wide range of topics. To some extent, hypothetical questions are allowed to properly explore whether a prospective juror can follow the law.

Federal trials are different. In most courts, lawyers are barely afforded time to talk to prospective jurors. The judge does most of the talking. It is not unheard of to only allow the attorney to ask a single question to the jury panel. Not to mention, federal courts almost discourage questioning jurors about opinions or biases.

Lawyers in state trials are generally allowed to move within the courtroom during questioning and argument. That is uncommon in federal courts.

In every court, the judge reigns supreme. But in federal court, the judge truly is king or queen. As a result, attorneys do not walk around the courtroom while questioning witnesses. Instead, they are relegated to a lectern. Allowing movement is perceived as giving too much deference to attorneys and allowing too much emotion, sympathy, or rhetoric.

One judge in the Northern District of Texas actually forbids expert witnesses from looking directly at jurors while testifying. In contrast, state courts often allow expert witnesses to approach an easel or smart board and, in essence, lecture the jurors.

Re-direct and re-cross examination are extensive in state trials. They are limited in federal court.

Since state trials are geared towards arriving at the truth and less designed to render sterile proclamations of guilt, they allow attorneys to question about any relevant fact. Federal courts, however, limit cross-examination to the specific topics discussed under direct examination. It’s similar to enforcing debate rules and mock trial precepts. In fact, most federal courts prohibit re-cross examination. That means that once a witness testifies on redirect examination, his or her testimony is concluded. State courts, on the other hand, let the attorneys go back and forth until every relevant matter is discussed.

Defense witness lists are often not required in state trials. They are often required in federal courts.

In state trials, defense attorneys are not required to show their hand by divulging their witnesses or exhibits before trial. This is because state courts respect the fact that defendants have a constitutional right to challenge charges in any legal manner. Federal crimes, however, are different. Federal defense attorneys have to prepare and share witness and exhibit lists before trial.

Judges, not attorneys, generally draft jury instructions in state cases. The opposite is true in federal criminal trials.

In state cases, the judge will provide instructions for the jury. In federal cases, however, the attorneys draft instructions in advance. This is especially harmful to defendants contemplating a particular defense but not wanting to divulge it to prosecutors in advance. In the federal system that is not a realistic possibility.

State trials almost always involve only one defendant. Many federal trials involve multiple defendants and large conspiracies.

Since most state crimes are committed by individuals, only one defendant is present. Federal offenses often involve schemes and conspiracies with many actors. For example, a mortgage fraud may involve a mortgage broker, several straw purchasers, and an appraiser. If several of these persons request a trial, they will be tried together. Another example: a drug trafficking organization may include multiple suppliers, transporters, money launderers, and street level dealers – all of whom could be tried together.

Also because federal crimes often involve large numbers of participants, the name of the game becomes to try to get defendants to turn on each other. While this is also true at the state level, it is extremely prevalent in the federal system. This is not to say that state criminal trials never involve multiple defendants. Murders, robberies, and thefts often involve several co-defendants. Typically, however, these cases often include only one defendant at trial at one time.

Contact Us

The attorneys at Varghese Summersett have vast experience handling state and federal cases. If you or a loved one is facing charges, call our office today for a free consultation with a seasoned defense attorney. Call us at 817-203-2220 or reach out online.

Federal Criminal Trials vs. State Trials
2021-07-19T07:51:31-06:00
Varghese Summersett PLLC
Varghese Summersett PLLC