Stages of a Criminal Trial in Missouri

Criminal Trial

A criminal trial in Missouri follows a well-defined process, ensuring fairness and justice for all parties involved. Whether you’re a defendant, witness, or simply curious about legal proceedings, learning these stages is important. Let’s look into the details:

Arrest and Booking

When an individual is suspected of committing a crime, law enforcement officers initiate the arrest process. Here’s what happens during this critical stage:


Officers detain the suspect based on probable cause. This involves informing the suspect of the charges against them and their rights (like the right to remain silent). The arrestee’s personal information is recorded, such as their name, address, and other identifying information.


After arrest, the suspect is taken to a police station or jail for booking. This administrative procedure serves several purposes:

  • Identification: The suspect’s fingerprints are taken, ensuring accurate identification.
  • Mugshot: A photograph (commonly known as a mugshot) is captured to document the suspect’s appearance at the time of the arrest.
  • Recording Details: Officers record additional information, such as the suspect’s physical characteristics and any personal belongings they have. This information becomes part of the official record.

Initial Appearance

Shortly after the arrest, the defendant appears before a judge. This initial appearance is crucial for several reasons:

  • Charges and Rights: The judge informs the defendant of the charges against them. Additionally, the defendant is reminded of their rights, including the right to an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford legal representation, the court may appoint a public defender.
  • Bail Determination: During the initial appearance, the judge considers whether to set bail. Bail allows the defendant to secure their release from custody while awaiting trial. If bail is granted, the defendant must comply with certain conditions (such as attending all court hearings) to remain free.

Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury

In Missouri, two different processes determine whether a case proceeds to trial:

Preliminary Hearing:

The prosecutor presents evidence to establish probable cause. This hearing occurs before a judge.

  • Witnesses, including law enforcement officers and other relevant parties, testify.
  • The judge evaluates the strength of the case. If probable cause is established, the trial moves forward.

Grand Jury:

  • A grand jury consists of citizens who review evidence presented by the prosecutor.
  • The prosecutor presents witnesses and exhibits.
  • If the grand jury finds sufficient evidence, they issue an indictment, which leads to trial.


At the arraignment, the defendant formally enters a plea:

  • Guilty: The defendant admits to the charges.
  • Not Guilty: The defendant denies the charges and outs for a trial.
  • No Contest (Nolo Contendere): The defendant neither admits nor denies guilt but accepts the consequences.

The judge also explains the charges in detail, outlines potential penalties, and ensures the defendant understands their rights. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the trial date is set.


During the discovery phase, both the prosecution and defense exchange evidence:

  • Witness Statements: Attorneys share statements made by witnesses during investigations.
  • Documents: Relevant documents, such as police reports, medical records, and expert analyses, are disclosed.
  • Physical Evidence: Any tangible evidence related to the case is provided.
  • Transparency: This process ensures that both sides have access to the same information, promoting a fair trial.

Pre-Trial Motions

Before the trial begins, attorneys file pre-trial motions to address legal issues:

The judge rules on these motions, shaping the trial’s parameters.

Jury Selection (Voir Dire)

The court selects a jury panel from potential jurors. Let’s see how it works:

  • Voir Dire: Attorneys question prospective jurors to ensure impartiality. They explore potential biases, prior knowledge of the case, and any personal connections to the parties involved.
  • Twelve Jurors: Twelve jurors (and alternates) are chosen to participate in the trial. Their role is crucial in determining the verdict.

Opening Statements

At the trial’s outset, both the prosecution and defense present opening statements:

  • Prosecution: The prosecutor outlines the case, introduces key evidence, and previews witness testimony.
  • Defense: The defense attorney provides an overview of the defense strategy, challenges the prosecution’s case, and underscores the defendant’s rights.

These statements set the stage for the trial proceedings.

Presentation of Evidence

During this stage, both the prosecution and defense present their evidence to the court. Here’s how it unfolds:

  • Witness Testimony: Witnesses take the stand and provide their accounts of events related to the case. Their testimony can be crucial in establishing facts or challenging the opposing side’s claims.
  • Exhibits: Physical evidence, documents, or other materials are introduced. These exhibits can include anything from photographs and videos to medical records or weapon fragments.
  • Expert Witnesses: Specialists in relevant fields (such as forensic experts, psychologists, or financial analysts) may testify. They provide insights based on their expertise, helping the jury understand complex matters.
  • Direct Examination: Attorneys question their own witnesses. This allows them to elicit favorable information and build their case.
  • Cross-Examination: Opposing attorneys then question the witnesses. The goal is to challenge credibility, reveal inconsistencies, or cast doubt on the testimony.
  • Burden of Proof: The prosecution carries the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard ensures that the accused is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

Closing Arguments

After all the evidence has been presented, both sides make their closing arguments. These persuasive speeches aim to sway the jury’s decision:

Prosecution’s Closing Argument:

  • Reiterates key evidence presented during the trial.
  • Emphasizes the defendant’s guilt and connects it to legal principles (such as relevant statutes or case law).

Defense’s Closing Argument:

  • Highlights reasonable doubt: Any uncertainty or lack of conclusive evidence that favors the defendant.
  • Challenges the prosecution’s case and underscores the defendant’s rights (such as the right to remain silent).

These closing arguments significantly influence the jury’s final decision.

Jury Deliberation

The jury retreats to a private room to deliberate. Here’s what happens:

  • Reviewing Evidence: Jurors carefully review all the evidence presented during the trial.
  • Discussion: They engage in discussions, considering each piece of evidence and the arguments made by both sides.
  • Verdict: A unanimous decision is required for a verdict. Jurors determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.


The jury announces its decision in open court. If the verdict is “guilty,” the trial proceeds to the next stage.


For convicted defendants, the sentencing phase begins:

Factors Considered:

  • Prior criminal record: The defendant’s history of offenses.
  • Severity of the crime: The nature and impact of the offense.
  • Mitigating Circumstances: Any factors that may reduce the severity of punishment (such as remorse or cooperation).

Judge’s Role:

The judge determines the appropriate punishment, which can range from fines and probation to imprisonment.


Either party (prosecution or defense) can appeal the verdict:

Grounds for Appeal:

  • Legal Errors: If mistakes occurred during the trial (such as incorrect jury instructions or improper evidence handling).
  • New Evidence: If new information emerges that could impact the case.

Appellate Court Review:

The appellate court reviews the trial record and assesses whether justice was served. If necessary, they may order a retrial or modify the sentence.


Understanding a criminal trial in Missouri demands diligence, legal expertise, and respect for due process. As you follow these stages, remember that justice is a collaborative effort—one that upholds the rights of all individuals involved.