Demystifying Criminal Law: Who’s Who

Posted March 4, 2010 in Demystifying the Law by

Several years ago, I was picked to serve on a jury for a criminal trial. For most of us, everything we know about criminal cases we learned through shows like "Law & Order." Even though I’ve worked in the legal profession for 19 years, it was the first time I’d seen a complete trial. (And I hope it’s the closest I ever come to a criminal case.) Many people want to dodge jury duty, but I was fascinated to get an inside look at the criminal justice system.

At Lawyers.com, we realize the law can be confusing—and we want to help you better understand it. This and my next two blog posts will try to shed some light on the criminal law process. If you find yourself involved in a criminal trial—whether you’re selected for a jury, accused of a crime, a victim or simply supporting someone who’s involved in a criminal case—this basic overview will help you be more prepared.

  • Today: Who’s who in criminal cases
  • Tuesday: The criminal investigation, including arrest, arraignment and bail
  • Next Thursday: The criminal trial

Who’s Who in a Criminal Investigation

There are several major and minor players in a criminal investigation:

  • Police: Responsible for investigating crimes. In some cases, the police officer will witness a crime in progress. More commonly, the police will respond to a crime that is reported by the victim or other witnesses. The police are responsible for collecting evidence and arresting a suspect.
  • Suspect: The individual who police believe has committed a crime.
  • Prosecutor, or prosecuting attorney: A government employee who reviews all of the evidence collected in connection with a crime. If the prosecutor thinks that enough evidence exists to charge a suspect with the crime, the prosecutor may issue that charge.
  • Grand jury: A group of citizens who are responsible for listening to evidence and deciding whether a suspect should be charged, or indicted, with a crime. (The grand jury is not responsible for determining guilt or innocence.)
  • Arraignment judge: The person who decides whether a suspect charged with a crime can be released on bail while awaiting trial or must remain in jail.

Who’s Who in a Criminal Trial

After a crime has been investigated and a suspect has been charged with the crime, the case then goes to trial, where evidence is presented to determine the suspect’s guilt or innocence. These are the major players in a criminal trial:

  • Judge: The person who manages the trial. The judge is responsible for: deciding whether evidence can be presented to the jury; ruling on points of law and settling arguments between the defense and prosecution; explaining to the jury their responsibilities (in the case of jury trials); deciding the case (in the case of bench trials; and sentencing defendants who have been convicted of crimes.
  • Defendant: The suspect who has been charged with a crime.
  • Prosecutor: The government lawyer who presents the evidence against the defendant.
  • Criminal defense lawyer: The lawyer representing the defendant and may (but is not required to) present evidence that contradicts the prosecutor’s evidence or otherwise shows the defendant did not commit the crime. The defendant is not required to have an attorney, though an attorney is strongly recommended.
  • Jury: The people who listen to the evidence and then must unanimously decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. (Many defendants opt for a jury trial, but the defendant can ask for a bench trial, where the judge would decide innocence or guilt.)
  • Witnesses: People who testify about things they witnessed firsthand that help prove the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
  • Court reporter: The court employee who makes a verbatim transcription of everything said in the courtroom that is on the record.
  • Bailiff or courtroom deputy: The law enforcement officer who is responsible for maintaining order in the court. The bailiff also administers the oath to all witnesses, marks exhibits that are introduced into evidence and escorts the jury to and from the jury room.
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