Criminal trials are emotionally challenging for both victims and witnesses. The standard of proof for criminal cases required is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard does not mean beyond all possible doubt, only beyond all “reasonable” doubt. Nonetheless, this is a very high standard, and all of the jurors must be unanimous in their determination.
Before the trial, prosecutors and investigators will rigorously prepare victims and witnesses. Trials are difficult for U.S. residents and citizens but may be even more challenging for foreign nationals who are unfamiliar with the U.S. criminal justice processes. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors should take time to explain the trial process and review the testimony, cross-examination, and redirect testimony, considering the anxiety that the trial presents to the victims. Investing such time pretrial is essential to a successful prosecution and cannot be underestimated.
Some useful tips when preparing victims include the following:
Walk the victim through the trial process. Take the victim to the court room and explain who will be there and where they will sit.
Explain in detail to the victim how to enter the courtroom, where to sit, and the oath process.
Explain what and how objections are made, that an objection does not mean the victim did anything wrong, and that the victim should wait for guidance from the judge.
Review in advance how documents or physical evidence will be identified and introduced through the victim.
Stress that the victim’s only job at trial is to tell the truth no matter who asks the questions. Time invested pretrial in explaining the process and reviewing testimony always pays off at trial. A victim who at least understands what will happen at the trial will be more prepared to focus on telling the story.
Have a safety plan for the victim during the trial. Prosecutors, investigators, attorneys, and service providers should work collaboratively on this plan. The victims should be housed at a location unknown to the defendants and their attorney and never near the courthouse, which would allow the defendant or a representative to follow them. Investigators should escort victims to and from the courthouse unless another secure plan is arranged. Separate and safe rooms for the government’s witnesses must be planned and secured in advance of the trial. Under no circumstances should a victim be unescorted while at court.
Have a support plan and prepare for all outcomes. Although a conviction is the best-case scenario, ensure that the victim has support if there is an undesirable outcome in the case. In addition, the victim should be aware that following a conviction by the jury, the judge either can order a defendant who has been out on bail to proceed to jail or can allow the defendant to remain on bail pending sentencing.