Legal Definitions



A unanimous not guilty verdict.

Hung Jury

When a panel of 12 jurors cannot collectively vote for acquittal or guilt a mistrial is declared. The case may be dismissed by the Judge or prosecutor (depending on the split), the case may be re-filed and started over again or the prosecutor may offer a much better deal to the defendant to make the case go away.

Not Guilty Plea

A plea by the defendant claiming innocence of guilt.

Guilty Plea

A plea by the defendant claiming guilt.

Nolo Contendre

By issuing a plea of nolo contendere, or "no contest", the defendant accepts the punishment without formally admitting that he was guilty. By doing this, he avoids the consequences of a guilty plea with regard to potential liability to other people for money damages.


A felony crime is punishable by one year or more in state prison. Felonies begin in the state's lower court system but may move up to the state Superior Court, or higher court. (Names for these courts vary from State to State) Sample felony crimes include murder, rape, or armed robbery.


A misdemeanor crime is punishable by up to one year in county jail. Misdemeanor trials are held in the state's lower court, sometimes referred to as Municipal Court. (Names for these courts vary from State to State) A misdemeanor may include such crimes as drunk driving, disorderly conduct and shoplifting


An arraignment is the process by which the defendant is read his rights and the list of charges against him is explained.

Pre-Trial Conference / Plea Bargaining

The pre-trial conference is a formal setting where plea-bargaining occurs. The prosecution may offer alternative sentencing. The charge may be changed to a lesser charge. The number of felony counts may be dropped. A lesser punishment for the same charge may be agreed upon.

Preliminary Hearing

This only occurs when the defendant's plea is "not guilty" in a felony charge. A preliminary hearing is shorter than a trial but operates similarly. It is conducted in front of a judge without a jury present. The primary goal of a preliminary hearing is to identify which cases are fit for trial and which are not.

Superior Court Arraignment

Once a defendant has completed the initial arraignment and preliminary hearing in a felony case, the defendant is arraigned in Superior Court. The defendant presents a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest.


The process by which a defendant is tried on charges and considered guilty or not guilty. Defendants charged with serious misdemeanors and felonies may be entitled to jury trials. Minor misdemeanor charges may be entitled to trial by judge. The rules differ state-by-state.


Once the defendant has plead guilty or received a guilty verdict by way of trial, he will be sentenced. Sentencing guidelines differ State-to-State.


After a defendant has been found guilty by way of trial, the defense attorney may request a higher court to change the lower court's decision.


An insurance policy to ensure the defendant appears at his next scheduled court date. It is cash or a cash equivalent. An attorney may bring a motion to reduce bail at any appearance before the court. Bail can be received by cash, check, property, or a bond, which is a guaranteed payment of the full amount of bail. Once the defendant appears in court, the bail money is refunded. In addition, bail is sometimes waived if the court feels the defendant is a good risk, and therefore is released on his own recognizance.

Voir Dire

The process of selecting a jury through questioning by attorneys. This is the time when the attorneys may set the tone of the trial. Many cases have been won or lost in voir dire.

Determinate Sentencing

Some states provide specific sentences based on specific crimes.

Indeterminate Sentencing

Many states do not provide specific sentences based on specific crimes.

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