Commonly used terms
If you’re not a lawyer, court clerk or police officer, legal terminology can be confusing – if not overwhelming. Here are some common prison law terms and basic explanations of what they mean:
Accessory: Someone who aids and/or abets (or counsels) someone else to commit a crime.
Arraignment: The first step in criminal proceeding where the defendant is brought in front of the court to hear the charges and enter a plea.
Bail Bond: Cash or a bond given to the court by a prisoner to secure conditional release from custody. The prisoner promises to return for judicial proceedings at a later time. A failure to return triggers the bond obligation and allows the court to keep any money given as security.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The standard in a criminal case that must be met by the prosecution in order to convict the defendant. It means the evidence is fully satisfied, all the facts are proven and guilt is established.
Expert Testimony: Testimony given in relation to some scientific, technical, or professional matter by experts, i.e., persons qualified to speak authoritatively by reason of their special training, skill, or familiarity with the subject.
Evidence: something that furnishes or tends to furnish proof; presented (as testimony, writings, or objects) at a judicial or administrative proceeding for the purpose of establishing the truth or falsity of an alleged matter of fact.
Felony: A crime that has a greater punishment imposed by statute than that imposed on a misdemeanor; punishment may be death or imprisonment for more than a year. Each state has its own statuary definition of a felony.
Grand Jury: A group of people selected to sit on a jury that decide whether to return an indictment. An indictment formally charges a person with committing a crime and begins the prosecution process. In the U.S., a grand jury consists of 16 to 23 people. They convene for a period of one month up to one year. The accused is usually not present.
Indictable Offense: A crime a prosecutor can charge by bringing evidence to a grand jury. These more serious charges include murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, rape, grand theft, robbery, arson, conspiracy and and fraud. Attempts to commit these crimes may also be indictable.
Jury: A group of people given the power to make findings of fact. During a court trial, a jury decides the truth of disputed facts, while a judge decides the rules of law. The American Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury for most criminal and many civil matters.
Misdemeanor: A crime that carries a less severe punishment than a felony, usually punishable by a fine and by a term of imprisonment not served in a penitentiary and not to exceed one year.
Motive: Something (a need or desire) that causes a person to act. Although motive is not an element of a crime, evidence regarding motives can be introduced to help establish intent.
Penal: Punishable; inflicting a punishment; containing a penalty, or relating to a penalty.
Prosecution: The process of seeking formal charges against a person and pursuing those charges to final judgment.
Reasonable Doubt: a doubt esp. about the guilt of a criminal defendant that arises or remains upon fair and thorough consideration of the evidence or lack thereof. (All persons are presumed to be innocent and no person may be convicted of an offense unless each element of the offense is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.)
Suspended Sentence: A criminal sentence that is not enforced unless the defendant fails to meet conditions imposed by the judge (ie. the requirement to provide restitution to victims or, to perform certain services such as community service) or commits another crime.
Sources: Cornell University Law School, http://dictionary.findlaw.com, Oxford Reference