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Criminal Case Procedure

With some exceptions, criminal cases are tried under the same rules of procedure and in much the same manner as civil cases. The person indicted or against whom the offense has been charged is known generally as the defendant. The state prosecutes all criminal cases in the name of the state. In a criminal case, the contention of the state is that a law of the state has been broken. The defendant, on the other hand, contends that he did not commit the offense charged or that there was some justification.

The attorney who represents the state in felony cases is called the district attorney, and the attorney who represents the state in misdemeanor cases is called the solicitor. Felony cases are those in which a crime is punishable by more than one year in prison. Misdemeanor cases are those in which a crime is punishable by one year or less in prison.

The basic mission of a jury is the same in both kinds of trials: to listen to the evidence with an open mind and to apply the law according to the judge's instructions. But in criminal cases, the side that makes the complaint or accusation--the prosecution--has a higher burden to meet: in order for you and the other jury members to decide in favor of the prosecution, you must be unanimously convinced that the prosecution has proved every accusation of crime--that is, every point you're being asked to give a verdict on--beyond a reasonable doubt.

"A reasonable doubt" is a doubt based upon a reason, and for which a good explanation can be given. It is a doubt upon which a reasonable person would act, or decline to act, in a matter of importance or of grave concern to himself or herself. It is the doubt of a fair-minded, impartial juror honestly seeking the truth.

In criminal cases, the jury's verdict is expressed as "guilty" or "not guilty." If you as a jury decide that a defendant is not guilty, then the defendant is free and the case is over.

If you find the defendant guilty, the judge will set the sentence at that point or in a later session.

However, if the jury finds the defendant guilty of a crime punishable by death, the judge will not impose the death penalty unless your verdict includes findings of aggravating circumstances and a recommendation that the death penalty be imposed. (In any such case, the judge will tell you what rules and choices apply to your decisions.)

There are some other differences between a civil and a criminal trial:

  • In civil trials, complaints can be brought by individuals, private organizations, or the government. In contrast, all criminal trials start with an indictment or accusation from the state, charging that the defendant has broken a law. The defendant does not file a written reply. The court starts with the assumption that the defendant denies the charges.
  • The attorney representing the state in felony cases (potentially punishable by more than a year in prison) is called the district attorney; the attorney representing the state in misdemeanor cases (potentially involving a year or less in prison) is called the solicitor.
  • In a non-capital felony case (that is, a felony case that doesn't potentially involve the death penalty), the court begins with a panel of 30 jurors, and each side is entitled to strike (dismiss) as many as nine jurors, leaving twelve for the trial. In misdemeanor cases, the court begins with a panel of twelve, and the lawyers may strike three each, resulting in a six-person trial jury.

This information excerpted from a pamphlet prepared by the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia with the advice of the Council of Superior Court Judges as a public service. It is not intended to be a comprehensive statement of law. Its purpose is to inform, not to advise on any specific legal problem. If you have a specific question regarding any matter contained in this pamphlet, you are encouraged to consult an attorney.