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LEGAL TERMS

PROSECUTOR

A lawyer who works for the local, state or federal government to bring and litigate criminal cases.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced '... (more...)
The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced 'to a moral certainty.' The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime before returning a guilty verdict.

PLEA

The defendant's formal answer to criminal charges. Typically defendants enter one of the following pleas: guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere. A plea is usual... (more...)
The defendant's formal answer to criminal charges. Typically defendants enter one of the following pleas: guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere. A plea is usually entered when charges are formally brought (at arraignment).

HABEAS CORPUS

Latin for 'You have the body.' A prisoner files a petition for writ of habeas corpus in order to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continu... (more...)
Latin for 'You have the body.' A prisoner files a petition for writ of habeas corpus in order to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continue to hold him. If the judge orders a hearing after reading the writ, the prisoner gets to argue that his confinement is illegal. These writs are frequently filed by convicted prisoners who challenge their conviction on the grounds that the trial attorney failed to prepare the defense and was incompetent. Prisoners sentenced to death also file habeas petitions challenging the constitutionality of the state death penalty law. Habeas writs are different from and do not replace appeals, which are arguments for reversal of a conviction based on claims that the judge conducted the trial improperly. Often, convicted prisoners file both.

LINEUP

A procedure in which the police place a suspect in a line with a group of other people and ask an eyewitness to the crime to identify the person he saw at the c... (more...)
A procedure in which the police place a suspect in a line with a group of other people and ask an eyewitness to the crime to identify the person he saw at the crime scene. The police are supposed to choose similar-looking people to appear with the suspect. If the suspect alone matches the physical description of the perpetrator, evidence of the identification can be attacked at trial. For example, if the robber is described as a Latino male, and the suspect, a Latino male, is placed in a lineup with ten white males, a witness' identification of him as the robber will be challenged by the defense attorney.

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.

ACTUS REUS

Latin for a 'guilty act.' The actus reus is the act which, in combination with a certain mental state, such as intent or recklessness, constitutes a crime. For ... (more...)
Latin for a 'guilty act.' The actus reus is the act which, in combination with a certain mental state, such as intent or recklessness, constitutes a crime. For example, the crime of theft requires physically taking something (the actus reus) coupled with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the object (the mental state, or mens rea).

DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE (DUI)

The crime of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs. Complete intoxication is not required; the l... (more...)
The crime of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs. Complete intoxication is not required; the level of alcohol or drugs in the driver's body must simply be enough to prevent him from thinking clearly or driving safely. State laws specify the levels of blood alcohol content at which a person is presumed to be under the influence. Also called driving while intoxicated (DWI and drunk driving).

HUNG JURY

A jury unable to come to a final decision, resulting in a mistrial. Judges do their best to avoid hung juries, typically sending juries back into deliberations ... (more...)
A jury unable to come to a final decision, resulting in a mistrial. Judges do their best to avoid hung juries, typically sending juries back into deliberations with an assurance (sometimes known as a 'dynamite charge') that they will be able to reach a decision if they try harder. If a mistrial is declared, the case is tried again unless the parties settle the case (in a civil case) or the prosecution dismisses the charges or offers a plea bargain (in a criminal case).

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

McKnight v. State

... II. Jury instructions. a. Criminal intent under the Homicide by Child Abuse statute. McKnight argues that counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the trial court's charge on the measure of criminal intent required for conviction under the Homicide by Child Abuse (HCA) statute. ...

Zurcher v. Bilton

... The trial court granted Respondents' motion for summary judgment as to each claim on the grounds that Appellant's Alford plea in a previous criminal proceeding collaterally estopped Appellant from litigating a civil claim based on the same facts as the criminal conviction. ...

Price v. Turner

... of Meghan, Rohling, Kelly, Dechert, LLP, of Philadelphia, Susan King Dunn, of Charleston, for Amici Curiae, The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, South Carolina National Office, the Brennan Center for Justice, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ...