A glossary of legal terms

This glossary is adapted from a much more detailed listing found at uscourts.gov, the website of the United States Courts.

Acquittal: A jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty, or a judge’s finding that the evidence is insufficient to convict.

Appeal: When a criminal defendant is found guilty, he may file a request that a higher court review the verdict.

Arraignment: A hearing in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges against him and asked to enter a plea.

Bench trial: A trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.

Brief: A statement submitted to a court that explains one side’s legal and factual arguments.

Burden of proof: In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt.

Capital offense: A crime punishable by death.

Concurrent vs. consecutive sentence: A person is convicted of more than one crime may be sentenced more than one prison term. The terms either run concurrently, or at the same time, or consecutively, or one after the other. Example of a concurrent sentence: Two 10-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of 10 years in prison. Same example, if consecutive: maximum of 23 years in prison.

Conviction: A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Court reporter: A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court, often using specialized equipment, and then creates a transcript of the proceedings upon request.

Defendant: In a criminal case, the person accused of the crime. In a civil case, the person or organization sued by the plaintiff.

Discovery: Process by which the prosecution and defense obtain information from each other before trial.

Due process: In criminal law, the constitutional guarantee that a defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial.

Evidence: Testimony or documents used to persuade the judge or jury to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.

Exclusionary rule: Evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional or statutory rights must be excluded.

Exculpatory evidence: Evidence indicating that a defendant did not commit the crime.

Felony: A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.

Grand jury: In Georgia, a panel of 16 to 23 citizens who, meeting in secret, listen to evidence of criminal allegations presented by a prosecutor. The grand jury then determines whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense and should stand trial.

Habeas corpus: Latin, meaning “you have the body.” A writ of habeas corpus is an order by a judge forcing the authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner’s continued confinement. Courts receive habeas petitions from state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated their rights in some way.

Hearsay: A witness generally may not testify about an incident  he has only heard about from someone else. This is called hearsay evidence.

Impeachment: Calling a witness’s testimony into doubt. For example, if a lawyer can show that the witness lied on the stand, the witness is said to be “impeached.”

Indictment: A formal charge by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial. It is used mostly for felonies.

Jurisdiction: The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case.

Jury: The people chosen to hear evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact.  Jurors live in the judicial circuit in which the trial is taking place.

Jury instructions: A judge’s directions to the jury before it begins deliberations. These cover factual questions the jury must answer and the legal rules that it must apply.

Litigation: A case, controversy or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.

Mistrial: An invalid trial, caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again with a new jury.

Motion: Request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

Nolo contendere: No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

Oral argument: Opportunity for lawyers to summarize their case before the court and also to answer the judges’ questions.

Parole:  Rrelease of a prison inmate after he has completed part of his sentence. The person is supervised by a parole officer.

Plea: The defendant’s declaration that he is guilty or not guilty in answer to the charges.

Pro bono: A case involving an indigent defendant that a private attorney agrees to take on free of charge. The term is short for the Latin “pro bono publico,” or “for the public good.”

Pro se: Latin “for himself.” A case in which a defendant serves as his own attorney.

Prosecute: To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government.

Remand: Send back. For example, the Supreme Court may remand a case to the trial court for reconsideration.

Reverse: The act of a court setting aside the decision of a lower court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.

Sentence: The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

Standard of proof: In criminal trials, prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Statute of limitations: The time within which a criminal prosecution must begin. The deadline can vary, depending on the crime. There is no limitation on some crimes, such as murder.

Subpoena: A command, issued under a court’s authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Testimony: Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

Transcript: A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial, or during some other formal conversation, such as a hearing or oral deposition

Venue: The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.

Verdict: The decision of a jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.

Warrant: A court’s authorization for law enforcement officers to conduct a search or make an arrest.

Witness: A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ: A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.

Explore more materials from Episode 4.