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How is the trier of fact determined in a trial?
The legal term “trier of fact” is an uncommon term. Trier of fact, however, is an important concept in a court of law during a trial. Read on to learn the definition of a trier of fact, who serves as the trier of fact, how the trier of fact makes decisions, and whether those decisions can be overturned.
What is a trier of fact?
A trier of fact refers to the individual or group of individuals who determines the facts in a trial or other legal proceeding.
In a trial, there may be many aspects of the case that both the prosecution and defense agree are facts. Examples of these kinds of facts may include the name and address of the defendant, the relationship of the defendant to the victim, or the location where the crime (or alleged crime) was committed.
The verdict of a trial, however, typically depends on the trier of fact evaluating evidence presented by the prosecution and defense to determine if accusations or events are actually facts. Examples of factors that would be evaluated by the trier of fact would include whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, whether the defendant had a motive to commit the crime, or whether statements made by a given witness are true or not.
The trier of fact is applicable to both criminal and civil trials.
Who is the trier of fact?
The trier of fact is typically the judge or a jury in a trial. In a trial by jury, the jury is the trier of fact and applies those facts against the laws in question as directed by the judge. The judge is responsible for making rulings of law regarding court proceedings, determining evidence that may be presented to the jury, and guiding the flow of the trial.
In a bench trial or trial to the court, the judge is the trier of fact. When the judge is the trier of fact, they are still also responsible for rulings of law and other responsibilities similar to a trial by jury.
In an administrative trial—that is, a hearing that is similar to a trial but that is held before an administrative individual or body—the trier of fact may be an administrative law judge or body, such as a commission or board of individuals.
How does the trier of fact reach a decision?
The trier of fact examines the evidence presented by the prosecution and defense. Based on the evidence, the trier of fact reaches a decision on whether various aspects of the trial can be considered as facts. The trier of fact then evaluates those facts against the law that the defendant is accused of having violated. Finally, if the trier of fact believes that the facts support that the defendant has violated the law, they will return a guilty verdict.
Can decisions by the trier of fact be overturned?
When the trial is a federal case, a case related to federal law, or a review of a state case by a federal court, conclusions by the trier of fact typically cannot be overturned. The protection of decisions made by the trier of fact is provided by the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.
While the Seventh Amendment is best known for providing a defendant the right to a trial by jury, the amendment also protects decisions of fact made by the trier of fact. The Seventh Amendment reads as follows on the matter: "In suits at common law... the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."
Therefore, when a verdict is appealed, the appellate court will typically not consider if the trier of fact made an error in their conclusion about the evidence. For this reason, when a court reviews an appeal of a verdict, the court is typically evaluating the case only for legal errors, not errors of fact.
There is an exception to this rule when a higher court determines that a legal error was made that could have affected a factual decision made by the trier of fact. In the event that the decision of a jury must be re-examined, the re-examination must be performed by another jury. This requirement ensures that the defendant still receives a verdict from the people, when they had originally elected to have a trial by jury.
How does the tier of fact compare to the trier of law?
The trier of law refers to the individual or group of people who determine the laws that apply to a particular court case. The judge is the trier of law in a court case—never a jury.
In a bench trial, the judge functions as both the trier of fact and the trier of law.