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1.6: Criminal Trials and Sentencing


  • Learn about criminal trials and sentencing in the United States.
  • Learn legal English vocabulary related to trials and sentencing.


  1. Read about criminal trials.
  2. Watch a video about federal sentencing guidelines and read about sentencing in the United States.
  3. Complete the exercise.

1. Criminal Trials

Defendants have a constitutional right to a trial by jury.  Potential jurors are selected randomly and are screened through a process of voir dire to determine whether the jurors may serve impartially.

The prosecution has the burden of proving each element of a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt.  There is no universal definition of what it means to be sure that someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but it is a much higher burden of proof than a civil trial’s preponderance of the evidence.

At the conclusion of the trial the judge will instruct the jurors as to the law.  Based on the judge’s instructions, the jurors will apply the law to the evidence introduced in the case and make a determination of whether or not the defendant is guilty (their “verdict”).  A jury can only determine that a defendant is guilty by a unanimous vote.  If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision the judge will declare a mistrial and the state has the option of attempting to try the case again with a different jury.

2. Sentencing

Watch a video on the federal sentencing guidelines:

If a jury votes to convict a defendant the judge is usually responsible for sentencing the defendant – – determining the defendant’s punishment.    In some states when a defendant is convicted of unlawful homicide, the jury, not the judge, determines whether the defendant may be sentenced to death. The federal government and some states have guidelines to promote more uniform sentencing of convicted defendants.  The guidelines are based on the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s past criminal history.

Listen to a podcast on the federal sentencing guidelines:

3. Complete the Excercise