The rules and procedures of a criminal court are complex. Always hire an experienced South Jordan Utah criminal defense lawyer if you have been charged with a crime.
The first function of the criminal courts is to adjudicate a criminal complaint. The criminal complaint is a formal document, called an indictment or an information, filed by the prosecution accusing a citizen of violating the law. This document brings the case to the attention of the court. The criminal complaint alleges certain conduct in violation of the law, and it calls upon the defendant to answer the allegations. In the courtroom, the defendant answers those charges, and, if the defendant claims to be “not guilty,” demands that the prosecution offer evidence in proof of the allegations.
Statement to Police
There are three different types of statements that are made to police and prosecutors by criminal defendants. An admission of guilt is a confession. A statement in which defendants show knowledge of the crime of which they are suspected is known as an admission. The term exculpatory statement is given to any statement made by suspects in which they try to assert their innocence, regardless of whether it actually clears them or really amounts to an admission or a confession.
The question of whether any of these types of statements can be admitted at trial not only has huge consequences for the outcome of the trial, it also may influence whether there will even be a trial. The prosecutor’s strength in a plea bargaining situation is relevant to the deal that can be cut. The stronger the evidence, the more likely it is that defendants will find it in their best interest to accept a deal. Because of the increased likelihood of a plea bargain or conviction if a defendant’s statements can be used in court, the debate over when such statements can be admitted has been a serious one for some time. It has also been a debate in which the Supreme Court’s guidance has been less than consistent. Today, the decision as to whether any type of statement is admissible may involve the examination of two different, constitutionally protected rights, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
At the conclusion of the trial, the judge gives the jury specific instructions about its duties. This is done in open court and the instructions are entered into the record. The development of jury instructions by a judge is made difficult due to two goals. The first goal is to provide technically correct instructions that will withstand judicial appeal. If a judge rejects the jury instruction submitted by the defense counsel, the defense can object, providing grounds for an appeal. In order to protect the case from being remanded because of faulty instructions, judges are careful to be technically correct in all the finer points of the law in developing their instructions. As a result, however, the instructions may be too technical and legalistic, compromising the second goal—clear instructions. This may make it difficult for the jurors to understand their instructions.
Some of the instructions are procedural, such as reminding the jury that the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty and that the prosecution bears the burden of proof. Other procedural instructions include explaining how the jury should select a foreperson, cautioning the jury not to discuss the case outside the jury room, and informing them of the number of jurors required for a guilty verdict to be rendered. Other aspects of the instructions inform the jurors about what constitutes evidence and how it should be assessed. Judges also use the jury instructions to educate the jurors about the law and the specific charges against the defendant. In doing so, the judge explains the elements involved in the charges and defines terms that may not be familiar to laypersons. If the indictment against the defendant has multiple counts, the judge explains the different charges and the variety of different verdict options that the jury has on each charge. In cases in which the defense has relied on a legal defense, such as insanity, the judge must also educate the jury about the appropriateness of the defense and its legal requirements.
Jury Deliberation and Verdict
Throughout the trial, the jurors are silent observers who are not asked to contribute to the process until the time of deliberation. At that time, the jurors are asked to reach a verdict in the case. The primary function of the jury is to determine what it considers to be the subjective facts of a case. In this role, the jury has considerable discretion. There are a number of difficulties in determining the facts of a case with any precision. Eyewitnesses may give differing accounts of the same incident. Some witnesses may be mistaken; others may lie on purpose. The defendant may opt not to testify, thus keeping valuable information from the jury. Other valuable evidence may be ruled inadmissible based on the rules of evidence. All these problems may make the jury’s duty to determine the facts of the case difficult.
A second function that also falls to the jury is application of the criminal law. The judge’s instructions to the jury may leave room for discretion in this area as well. Many legal terms are open to interpretation in their application.
The jury’s task is further frustrated because the attorneys for both sides have done their best to make their own evidence seem unquestionable while discrediting the evidence of the other. Furthermore, in their closing arguments the two attorneys have, in many cases, shown the jurors how inferences can be made that would allow any verdict to seem reasonable. All these problems make the jury’s task difficult.
Jury deliberation takes place in the privacy of a jury room. No record is made of the jury deliberations. The jury room is guarded by a bailiff who ensures that the jury will remain undisturbed in its deliberations. The first order of business for most juries is the selection of a foreperson. There are no formal rules in most jurisdictions for how a jury proceeds. Each jury may set its own informal rules for how to deliberate. During deliberation the jury can, through the bailiff, request that physical evidence be brought before it. The jury can also request that the court reporter read part of the testimony out of the record. Juries can also ask the judge to provide clarification of legal points during deliberation.
If the jurors can agree on a verdict, it will be signed by the foreperson and read aloud in court. In Iowa, as in most other states, jurors in criminal trials had to be unanimous to reach a guilty verdict. If, after thorough deliberation, the jury is unable to reach a verdict because of a lack of agreement, the jury is said to be hung. When this happens, the judge will usually instruct the jury to try to break the impasse and come up with a verdict. If the jury remains hung with no possibility of agreeing on a verdict, the prosecutor has the option of retrying the case from scratch.
When a verdict is announced, there may be a request from either of the attorneys that the jury be polled, although neither did so in this case. If such a request is made, then each juror will individually be asked by the judge if he or she concurred with the verdict. Once the verdict is announced, the jury is thanked and released from its duty. The members of the jury are then free to discuss the case and the deliberation process with anyone. When the verdict is guilty, the defense counsel may make a motion to have the judge override the verdict or for a new trial on the basis of a flaw that existed in the trial. Normally, such motions are a formality intended to preserve issues for appeal and are denied by the judge.
If a defendant is found guilty, the next stage of the process is sentencing. In most cases, judges are responsible for sentencing. There is one exception: In capital cases, the jury often imposes a sentence following a sentencing hearing after the verdict has been reached.
Before judges sentence an individual, they normally receive a presentence investigation report compiled by a probation officer working for the jurisdiction in which the individual was convicted. The report contains background information on the individual. This includes any previous criminal convictions, the individual’s family situation, and his or her employment record. The Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that states may, if they wish, include victim impact statements in sentencing reports without violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Generally, the report incorporates a recommendation as to whether prison or probation should be imposed. In felony cases, the defendant appears at a sentencing hearing in which both the defense and prosecuting attorneys can address the court, arguing for certain sentences. The convicted individual is also usually asked whether she wants to address the court.
Our federal and state judicial system allows people who are convicted of crimes to appeal their convictions to an appellate court. While many people see the appeals process as a tactic used by those convicted to delay justice, appeals courts do play an important role in our system of justice. The primary function of appellate courts is to correct errors of either the substantive or procedural law as they were applied to the subjective facts at trial. Because individual judges are capable of erring in their interpretation of the law, judicial review helps to ensure that justice will not necessarily suffer. One key advantage that appellate courts have over trial courts in interpreting the law is time. Trial judges are forced to shoot from the hip and quickly make rulings on procedural law with little chance for contemplation. Appellate judges, on the other hand, consider these same issues after having read extensive written briefs and heard oral arguments. They then have the luxury of taking time to consider the issues. Another advantage appellate judges have is that they make decisions in panels comprising a number of judges, so the chance of an idiosyncratic error by an isolated individual is limited.
Appeals in state cases go to either the intermediate court of appeals, if one exists, or to the state supreme court. Unsuccessful appellants at state intermediate courts can then request review by state supreme courts. If the case involves a federal constitutional issue and the state supreme court either refuses to review the case or resolves it, then the party that lost may petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Finally, if unsuccessful in this attempt for U.S. Supreme Court review, a defendant also has the opportunity to attack the conviction collaterally through the habeas corpus process, if the case involves a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The writ of habeas corpus is a procedural device that sets in motion a judicial inquiry to determine if a person who holds another in custody can demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that there is a legal justification for restraining that person’s liberty. Since 1867, federal habeas corpus relief has been available to individuals convicted of state criminal charges who want to challenge the conviction on federal constitutional grounds.
Although appeals can be filed in almost any case, they will only be ruled on favorably when a serious error of law was made at trial. Serious errors of law are distinguished from harmless errors. Serious errors are ones that may have led to a reversal of the verdict by the judge or jury had the defendant had a fair trial.
Appellate courts do not hold new trials or review the factual determinations leading to a verdict. Appellate courts do not accept new evidence or listen to new testimony. Appellate courts only examine the legal issues in the trial record that counsel argues denied the defendant a fair trial. Appellate courts are limited to hearing arguments about how the law—as applied in the decisions of the lower court judge through the record of the trial—was misapplied in a harmful manner.
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