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In the U.S., rules of court have the prosecutor in a criminal trial giving the first opening statement, followed by the defense's opening statement; and then the final closing statement, after the defense's closing statement.

Giving the prosecution both the first and the last word seems like obviously tilting the scale of justice in its favor, and against the accused. If so it would seem to violate the legal principle in dubio pro reo and associated customs and practices to assume an accused is innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At the very least an outsider might think it more fair to have opening and closing statements in the same order: I.e., if the defense speaks last at opening then it also speaks last at closing.

What are the origins and reasons for this custom of giving the prosecution the first and last word at trial?

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    The originators might not have shared your opinion that it's better to have the first opening argument and the second closing argument. They might have thought having the first argument was advantageous in both phases (you get the jury's attention while they're fresh); or that having the second argument was advantageous in both phases (you get to rebut the other side and have the last word). Under either of those theories, the existing rule would be closer to fair, and your proposed rule would be less fair. – Nate Eldredge Dec 16 '20 at 19:39
  • I think this procedure came to the US from the UK, and dates from the period when procedure was designed to make things harder for the accused, but I will need to find a source before putting that in an answer. Other former procedural hurdles: the accused was not allowed to have a lawyer; the accrued was not allowed to testify under oath. For both of those I have a source. – David Siegel Dec 16 '20 at 20:16
  • What rules of court do you have in mind? The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provide for the prosecution to close first. I think this is the norm throughout the common law world. While the prosecution can rebut after the defense closing address, this is limited in scope and not equivalent to a second closing address. – sjy Dec 17 '20 at 7:53
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    @sjy interesting find: I can't see a clear limitation on the scope of the "rebuttal" in FRCP 29.1, and I'm not sure I have read or observed any federal criminal trials to see how the rebuttal is used in practice. But I have read at least one appellate case affirming that the prosecution has great leeway in its use of "rhetorical flair" during closing. I'm more familiar with U.S. state rules like PA Rule 604 that give each party one closing and require the prosecution go last. – feetwet Dec 17 '20 at 14:06

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