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LEGAL TERMS

AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer's penalty or punishment. For example, th... (more...)
Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer's penalty or punishment. For example, the crime of aggravated assault is a physical attack made worse because it is committed with a dangerous weapon, results in severe bodily injury or is made in conjunction with another serious crime. Aggravated assault is usually considered a felony, punishable by a prison sentence.

IMPEACH

(1) To discredit. To impeach a witness' credibility, for example, is to show that the witness is not believable. A witness may be impeached by showing that he h... (more...)
(1) To discredit. To impeach a witness' credibility, for example, is to show that the witness is not believable. A witness may be impeached by showing that he has made statements that are inconsistent with his present testimony, or that he has a reputation for not being a truthful person. (2) The process of charging a public official, such as the President or a federal judge, with a crime or misconduct and removing the official from office.

ELEMENTS (OF A CRIME)

The component parts of crimes. For example, 'Robbery' is defined as the taking and carrying away of property of another by force or fear with the intent to perm... (more...)
The component parts of crimes. For example, 'Robbery' is defined as the taking and carrying away of property of another by force or fear with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. Each of those four parts is an element that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

EXPUNGE

To intentionally destroy, obliterate or strike out records or information in files, computers and other depositories. For example, state law may allow the crimi... (more...)
To intentionally destroy, obliterate or strike out records or information in files, computers and other depositories. For example, state law may allow the criminal records of a juvenile offender to be expunged when he reaches the age of majority, to allow him to begin his adult life with a clean record. Or, a company or government agency may routinely expunge out-of-date records to save storage space.

DISCOVERY

A formal investigation -- governed by court rules -- that is conducted before trial. Discovery allows one party to question other parties, and sometimes witness... (more...)
A formal investigation -- governed by court rules -- that is conducted before trial. Discovery allows one party to question other parties, and sometimes witnesses. It also allows one party to force the others to produce requested documents or other physical evidence. The most common types of discovery are interrogatories, consisting of written questions the other party must answer under penalty of perjury, and depositions, which involve an in-person session at which one party to a lawsuit has the opportunity to ask oral questions of the other party or her witnesses under oath while a written transcript is made by a court reporter. Other types of pretrial discovery consist of written requests to produce documents and requests for admissions, by which one party asks the other to admit or deny key facts in the case. One major purpose of discovery is to assess the strength or weakness of an opponent's case, with the idea of opening settlement talks. Another is to gather information to use at trial. Discovery is also present in criminal cases, in which by law the prosecutor must turn over to the defense any witness statements and any evidence that might tend to exonerate the defendant. Depending on the rules of the court, the defendant may also be obliged to share evidence with the prosecutor.

SENTENCE

Punishment in a criminal case. A sentence can range from a fine and community service to life imprisonment or death. For most crimes, the sentence is chosen by ... (more...)
Punishment in a criminal case. A sentence can range from a fine and community service to life imprisonment or death. For most crimes, the sentence is chosen by the trial judge; the jury chooses the sentence only in a capital case, when it must choose between life in prison without parole and death.

MENS REA

The mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act (the actus reus) in a certain mental s... (more...)
The mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act (the actus reus) in a certain mental state (the mens rea). The mens rea of robbery, for example, is the intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property.

CONVICTION

A finding by a judge or jury that the defendant is guilty of a crime.

MISTRIAL

A trial that ends prematurely and without a judgment, due either to a mistake that jeopardizes a party's right to a fair trial or to a jury that can't agree on ... (more...)
A trial that ends prematurely and without a judgment, due either to a mistake that jeopardizes a party's right to a fair trial or to a jury that can't agree on a verdict (a hung jury) If a judge declares a mistrial in a civil case, he or she will direct that the case be set for a new trial at a future date. Mistrials in criminal cases can result in a retrial, a plea bargain or a dismissal of the charges.