One of the most vaguely understood events in the United States is the modern criminal trial. Most people have a faint knowledge of the goings-on of criminal proceedings, mainly due to what is seen on television, but the person who knows the real course of a trial is rare. However, there is nothing mysterious about the events that determine criminal guilt. Trials are carefully orchestrated, following procedures that have been laid in legal concrete over the years, and generally follow the same basic format across the United States.
Criminal law is distinguishable from civil law in the aspect that criminal acts are officially considered to injure not only individuals, but society as a whole. This is the reason why criminal cases are described as state v. offender. The state, as the injured party, is taking the defendant to court. The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine if the offender is legally guilty of the crime, but this does not necessarily mean that the person in question committed the crime. As opposed to factual guilt (the person ‘did it’), legal guilt merely means that a jury of the defendant’s peers is convinced without reasonable doubt. As can be seen, this leaves room for possible discrepancies.
Before a trial can proceed, certain events must take place. The first is the arraignment of the defendant, which can happen anytime between arrest and a logical, non-specific time before the trial itself. Arraignment consists of the court reading to the defendant the substance of the charge, and calls on the subject to enter a plea within a given time.
The defendant may consult with and be advised by an attorney on what plea to offer the court. He may plead guilty or no...
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...e and money involved, which is sometimes quite substantial, is wasted. But a verdict is reached successfully 99 percent of the time. The jury, led by the foreman, gives the verdict to the judge in open court. If the verdict is guilty, the defense attorney may choose to ‘poll the jury.’ He asks each juror his personal opinion, and in a few cases, a juror’s doubts re-emerge to cancel the verdict. This rarely happens, but if it does the result is a victory for the defense.
A criminal trial is a complicated but closely choreographed event. Almost nothing happens without proper precedent, and even the most factually guilty defendant can be sure of having at least a small chance of getting “off the hook.” The unbiased trial is a constitutional institution that may not always make sense to the average person, but that reflects the value of justice in American society.
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