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What is a Closing Argument?

Attorney Adrian M. Madrone has teamed up with Law Professor Julie A. Helling’s acclaimed Internet Podcast Series Justice On Trial. In this episode, Adrian discusses what makes a strong closing argument and why they’re so important. To listen to the complete podcast, where Julie also interviews a combination attorney and artist, visit iTunes.

A full transcript of Adrian’s ‘Know Your Rights’ segment is provided below for your convenience.

What is a Closing Argument?

On previous episodes of this podcast, we have talked about the different parts of a trial. These have included jury selection, opening statements, and the presentation of evidence through witness testimony. The last step in a trial, which we will be discussing here, is the closing argument.

Closing arguments are the culmination of each side’s case at trial. This is where each side gets to make their strongest case to the jury for why they should win. Unlike opening statements, which are intended to serve as a preview of the case and should be a relatively neutral in tone, closing arguments should be persuasive and framed in the strongest way possible for each side.

Closing arguments are presented in the same order as the earlier parts of the trial. The prosecutor or plaintiff gets to deliver their closing first, the defense goes next, and then the plaintiff has the opportunity to give one final rebuttal argument before the case is given to the jury to deliberate.

What Should a Closing Argument Include?

There are typically two things that should be covered in either side’s closing argument.

The Facts

First, each side should talk about the facts that came out at trial through the witness testimony. This includes both talking about the facts and explaining why those facts are important to your case. In discussing facts, a party can also bring up things that are missing from the other side’s case, and can argue for why some of the other side’s evidence is weak or not believable. Again, the discussion of facts in closing should be persuasive, not neutral; the attorneys should be very clear about not only what the facts are, but also why they matter.

The Law

In addition to the facts of the case, the second thing each side will typically discuss is the law and how it applies to the jury’s decision-making. Before the parties deliver their closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury about the law that they are to follow in making their decision. Then in closing arguments, each side will typically refer back to those instructions and highlight the parts of the law that are most favorable to their case.

Examples of Closing Arguments

Example of Prosecution Closing Argument

Here is a short, abbreviated example of how a closing argument might be structured. Let’s say this was a trial for someone charged with a DUI (driving under the influence). The prosecuting attorney’s closing argument may sound something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the evidence we have just presented to you proves that Mr. Smith, the defendant, is guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol. You heard from Officer Jones who pulled the defendant over for swerving between lanes and running a red light. When Officer Jones contacted the defendant, he immediately smelled alcohol and heard the defendant slurring his speech while talking. The defendant then performed some Field Tests, and Officer Jones explained to you all the signs of impairment that he observed. Based on all of the clear signs of intoxication, Officer Jones placed the defendant under arrest for DUI and took him for a breath test. In this trial, you heard about the breath test machine, how it works, and what the results mean. You also heard that the defendant’s breath test result was .12. As the judge instructed you, a breath test result above .08 means that a person is legally impaired and cannot drive a car. The defendant broke that law and committed the crime of driving under the influence. Therefore, I ask that you return a verdict finding him guilty.”

Example of Defense Closing Argument

As an example of a defense closing to this same DUI case, the defense might argue something like this: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you have heard the prosecution’s argument, but they have left out some very important issues that came out during this trial. As you recall, in our trial, Mr. Smith testified that he was not under the influence of alcohol that night. That evening, he went out to dinner with a friend, and had one glass of wine. You heard the testimony of Mr. Smith’s friend who was with him, who confirmed this was the case. You also heard that unfortunately while Mr. Smith was driving, he had a mild seizure, which caused him to appear impaired when he was contacted by the police officer. You heard testimony from Mr. Smith’s doctor, who told you about this medical condition. You also heard evidence that the breath test machine used in this case had numerous service issues and a lengthy repair history. You also heard about inaccuracies and issues with the machine that the prosecution could never rule out. The judge instructed you that you can only convict Mr. Smith of this crime if the prosecution has proven their case beyond a reasonable. In this case, there is extensive reason to doubt the prosecution’s evidence, and therefore we ask that you return the only verdict possible. We ask that you find Mr. Smith not guilty.”

Why are Closing Arguments Important?

As you can see, a trial can involve one single set of facts, but with the parties reaching totally different conclusions about what those facts mean. Closing argument is the time in the trial when each side makes their strongest case about the facts, the law, and the conclusions that the jury should reach. Because closing arguments are the last thing the jury will hear before deliberating, persuasive closing arguments are vital to each side’s chances of success.

This is Adrian Madrone, and this ‘Know Your Rights’ segment has been brought to you by the Lustick, Kaiman & Madrone law firm, a full-service criminal defense firm in beautiful Bellingham, Washington.