2 Types of CasesIn criminal law cases the government charges someone with a crime and is always the prosecution. The accused person is the defendant.A crime is an act that breaks a federal or state criminal law and causes harm to people or society in general. Each state has a set of written criminal laws, called the penal code, that spells out punishments for each crime.
3 continuedFelonies are serious crimes and misdemeanors are minor violationsCriminal penalties punish criminals and protect society by keeping dangerous criminals in prison. They serve as a warning to deter others from committing the same crime. Criminal penalties are also intended to help prepare lawbreakers to reenter society after their prison terms end.
4 continuedIn some cases, a parole board may decide to grant a prisoner parole, or early release. In these cases, the person must report to a parole officer until the sentence expires.Some states require mandatory sentencing, in which judges must impose whatever sentence the law directs. In other systems, a judge imposes a minimum and maximum sentence. Under any system, similar crimes should receive similar sentences, but judges have some leeway to consider the unique circumstances of each case.
5 continuedCrimes against people include murder, manslaughter (accidental killing), assault (physical injury or threat of injury), rape and kidnapping.Crimes against property include larceny (burglary, robbery and theft), vandalism (deliberate destruction of property) and fraud (taking property by dishonest means).Crimes such as unauthorized gambling and illegal drug use are considered victimless crimes, because there is no victim to bring a complaint.
6 What Happens in a Criminal Case? Officers make arrests if they have witnessed a suspected crime, if a citizen has reported a crime, or if a judge has issued an arrest warrant.At arrest, the officer informs the person of four rights: the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present during questioning, to have a court-appointed attorney if the person cannot afford one and to stop answering questions at any time.
7 continuedThe suspect is then booked, or charged with a crime. Police take fingerprints and a photograph. The suspect may call a lawyer at this time.In a few hours, the suspect appears in court. The prosecution must show the judge probable cause – a good reason – to believe the accused committed the crime. The judge then sends the accused back to jail, sets bail, or releases him on his own recognizance (without bail) with a promise to appear in court when called.
8 continuedIn federal and many state courts, a grand jury decides whether to indict. In some states, a preliminary hearing is used instead.The defendant then appears for an arraignment and must enter a plea. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case continues. If the plea is guilty, the defendant convicted and the judge determines the punishment. A plea of no contest means that the defendant does not admit guilt but will not fight the charges.
9 continuedA plea bargain is an agreement in which the accused agrees to plead guilty, but to a lesser charge. This avoids a lengthy trial and ensures a punishment.Criminal defendants have a right to a jury trial, but many choose to be tried by a judge alone in a bench trial.For a jury trial, both sides select potential jurors from a large pools of residents within the court’s jurisdiction. Both can reject some candidates.
10 continuedThe lawyers for each side outline their case in an opening statement. The prosecution and defense then present their case in turn. They call witnesses who give testimony – answers given under oath. The other side may cross-examine witnesses to try to discredit their testimony.In closing statements, both sides highlight the evidence most favorable to their case. The judge then “instructs” the jury on the law that relates to the case.
11 continuedIn closing statements, both sides highlight the evidence most favorable to their case. The judge then “instructs” the jury on the law that relates to the case.The jury goes off to discuss the case. They choose a foreman or forewoman to lead the discussion. Deliberations are secret and have no time limit. Finally, they vote.
12 continuedA guilty verdict means the jury found the evidence convincing “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Most states require a unanimous vote. Acquittal is a vote of not guilty.If the jury cannot decide on a verdict, the judge declares a hung jury and rules a mistrial. The prosecution must then decide whether to drop the charges or retry the case.
13 continuedIf the verdict is guilty, the judge sets a court date for sentencing. Sometimes the jury recommends a sentence. More often, the judge decides the sentence. Sentences often specify prison time, but may include fines or community service work.The defense often appeals a guilty verdict. The 5th Amendment prohibition against double jeopardy bars the prosecution from appealing a not-guilty verdict.