Criminal Court Cases
The United States judicial system is divided into two types of court cases, criminal and civil. Criminal court cases involve a government entity accusing an individual or company of breaking the law or committing a crime against the state or federal government.
Crimes, even though they may involve hurting, injuring or killing an individual, are considered offensive to society as a whole. Therefore our government is responsible for carrying out justice to protect the people, according to guidelines outlined in our Constitution.
There are a variety of types of criminal court cases and some of the most common that you would be aware of are:
- Financial Fraud.
- Bank Robbery.
- Threatening the president or other federal officials or buildings.
- Committing a crime on federal property.
- Committing a crime using interstate commerce.
- Committing a crime that involves a conspiracy.
- Using a firearm to commit a crime.
- Manufacturing and distributing controlled substances.
Any crime committed is upsetting to society as a whole, and the government must protect its citizens and therefore it is their job to arrest, prosecute and sentence criminals to keep the rest of us safe.
In a criminal court case, you have a judge, a jury of twelve peers, a prosecuting attorney, and a defense lawyer, plus the defendant themselves. Although the jury will ultimately decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant, the judge will set the punishment to fit the crime.
The prosecuting attorney works for the government and tries to prove the guilt of the individual or entity being prosecuted. The defense attorney works for the defendant and tries to prove his or her innocence.
The Burden of Proof
The burden of proof lies with the prosecuting attorney and the government to prove the accused is guilty. Any person or entity is “innocent until proven guilty” according to the U.S. Constitution. The defendant and their lawyer do not have to prove their innocence. The burden, which is significant, is on the prosecution to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Meaning that the evidence is so overwhelming, that a jury of twelve people cannot help but find the person guilty.
There are very specific laws about what evidence is allowed, how things are obtained and what can and cannot be said and done in a courtroom. All parties must follow these rules or the judge can impose sanctions upon them such a “contempt of court.”
The first step in a criminal proceeding is the pretrial or arraignment hearing. After an arrest, the defendant is brought before a judge who hears the charges and determines whether or not there is probable cause to proceed to a trial. They also decide whether the defendant should be held in jail until the trial or released on bail.
During this event, the judge confirms that the defendant understands the charges against them and what is going on to determine competency to stand trial. The defendant then enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleas guilty, the judge will determine sentencing, or schedule it for later and there is no trial. Often a defense attorney will “plea bargain” and offer up a guilty plea in exchange for dropping of some charges or a lesser sentence. If the defendant enters a plea of “not guilty” then the judge will schedule a trial.
At this stage, the defendant is also informed that they have a right to legal counsel and if they cannot afford it, one will be appointed for them.
If released on bail the defendant may have to check-in with the court before trial or wear an electronic monitoring device to ensure they do not flee before the trial.
During the days and weeks leading up to the trial, both the prosecuting and defense lawyers share information and prepare their cases. Both must follow specific rules in doing so. Evidence must be gathered according to strict guidelines and then entered into the trial record.
Often witnesses will need to be found and interviewed, and their testimony will be a critical piece of the trial process.
During this portion, attorneys may file a series of motions to suppress evidence or eliminate witnesses to protect their client's rights and get them a fair trial.
Once all the evidence is presented, and both sides have been able to appeal to the jury with opening and closing statements, the jury will retire to a private room to discuss the case and come to an agreement.
All twelve individuals on the jury must agree as to the verdict. They must keep going until there is a quorum. If they find after a long time, they absolutely cannot agree, the trial may be thrown out as a mistrial.
If the jury comes to a guilty verdict, then the judge must decide what the punishment must be. The judge is supposed to fit the punishment to the crime, according to the United States Constitution.
The judge will consider many factors when deciding the sentence. Some of the criteria one uses are as follows:
- If the defendant has a repeat history of crime.
- If the defendant was the main person committing the crime.
- If anyone was injured or killed during the crime.
- If the defendant was coerced into committing the crime or other extenuating circumstances existed.
- If the defendant’s crime was unusually violent or cruel.
- Whether or not the defendant has any remorse or feels regretful and sorry for committing the crime.
The punishment imposed, called the sentence might include payment of fees, prison time, community service, and other actions to provide restitution to the parties affected or society as a whole. In some states where it is legal, the punishment, if severe enough may even be the death penalty.
After sentencing, a United States probation officer will be assigned to the defendant to ensure they carry out their sentencing. After release from prison, the defendant must meet with this probation officer routinely to check-in and make sure they are re-integrating back into society correctly.