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LEGAL TERMS

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.

CORPUS DELECTI

Latin for the 'body of the crime.' Used to describe physical evidence, such as the corpse of a murder victim or the charred frame of a torched building.

FELONY

A serious crime (contrasted with misdemeanors and infractions, less serious crimes), usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year or, in some cases... (more...)
A serious crime (contrasted with misdemeanors and infractions, less serious crimes), usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year or, in some cases, by death. For example, murder, extortion and kidnapping are felonies; a minor fist fight is usually charged as a misdemeanor, and a speeding ticket is generally an infraction.

CAPITAL CASE

A prosecution for murder in which the jury is also asked to decide if the defendant is guilty and, if he is, whether he should be put to death. When a prosecuto... (more...)
A prosecution for murder in which the jury is also asked to decide if the defendant is guilty and, if he is, whether he should be put to death. When a prosecutor brings a capital case (also called a death penalty case), she must charge one or more 'special circumstances' that the jury must find to be true in order to sentence the defendant to death. Each state (and the federal government) has its own list of special circumstances, but common ones include multiple murders, use of a bomb or a finding that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

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).

INFRACTION

A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine--for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, ho... (more...)
A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine--for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, however--refusing to identify oneself when involved in an accident is a misdemeanor in some states.

ACQUITTAL

A decision by a judge or jury that a defendant in a criminal case is not guilty of a crime. An acquittal is not a finding of innocence; it is simply a conclusio... (more...)
A decision by a judge or jury that a defendant in a criminal case is not guilty of a crime. An acquittal is not a finding of innocence; it is simply a conclusion that the prosecution has not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

CHARGE

A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evid... (more...)
A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evidence of wrongdoing. Formal charges are announced at an arrested person's arraignment.

CRIMINAL CASE

A lawsuit brought by a prosecutor employed by the federal, state or local government that charges a person with the commission of a crime.