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LEGAL TERMS

CHARGE

A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evid... (more...)
A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evidence of wrongdoing. Formal charges are announced at an arrested person's arraignment.

PROBABLE CAUSE

The amount and quality of information police must have before they can arrest or search without a warrant or that a judge must have before she will sign a searc... (more...)
The amount and quality of information police must have before they can arrest or search without a warrant or that a judge must have before she will sign a search warrant allowing the police to conduct a search or arrest a suspect. Reliable information must show that it's more likely than not that a crime has occurred and the suspect is involved.

HOMICIDE

The killing of one human being by the act or omission of another. The term applies to all such killings, whether criminal or not. Homicide is considered noncrim... (more...)
The killing of one human being by the act or omission of another. The term applies to all such killings, whether criminal or not. Homicide is considered noncriminal in a number of situations, including deaths as the result of war and putting someone to death by the valid sentence of a court. Killing may also be legally justified or excused, as it is in cases of self-defense or when someone is killed by another person who is attempting to prevent a violent felony. Criminal homicide occurs when a person purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another. Murder and manslaughter are both examples of criminal homicide.

MCNAGHTEN RULE

The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wron... (more...)
The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wrong at the time he committed the crime. For example, a delusional psychotic who believed that his assaultive acts were in response to the will of God would not be criminally responsible for his acts.

BAIL BOND

The money posted by a 'bondsman' for a defendant who cannot afford his bail. The defendant pays a certain portion, usually 10%. If the defendant fails to appear... (more...)
The money posted by a 'bondsman' for a defendant who cannot afford his bail. The defendant pays a certain portion, usually 10%. If the defendant fails to appear for a court hearing, the judge can issue a warrant for his arrest and threaten to 'forfeit,' or keep, the money if the defendant doesn't appear soon. Usually, the bondsman will look for the defendant and bring him back, forcefully if necessary, in order to avoid losing the bail money.

ASSAULT

A crime that occurs when one person tries to physically harm another in a way that makes the person under attack feel immediately threatened. Actual physical co... (more...)
A crime that occurs when one person tries to physically harm another in a way that makes the person under attack feel immediately threatened. Actual physical contact is not necessary; threatening gestures that would alarm any reasonable person can constitute an assault. Compare battery.

CORPUS DELECTI

Latin for the 'body of the crime.' Used to describe physical evidence, such as the corpse of a murder victim or the charred frame of a torched building.

CAPITAL CASE

A prosecution for murder in which the jury is also asked to decide if the defendant is guilty and, if he is, whether he should be put to death. When a prosecuto... (more...)
A prosecution for murder in which the jury is also asked to decide if the defendant is guilty and, if he is, whether he should be put to death. When a prosecutor brings a capital case (also called a death penalty case), she must charge one or more 'special circumstances' that the jury must find to be true in order to sentence the defendant to death. Each state (and the federal government) has its own list of special circumstances, but common ones include multiple murders, use of a bomb or a finding that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

GRAND JURY

In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the f... (more...)
In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the first step, after arrest, in any formal prosecution of a felony.

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

Commonwealth v. Gunter

... Paul Gunter was convicted of murder in the first degree on a theory of felony-murder, in violation of GL c. 265, § 1; armed assault in a dwelling with intent to commit a felony, in violation of GL c. 265, § 18A; and illegal possession of a firearm, in violation of GL c. 269, § 10 (a). This ...

Commonwealth v. Womack

... Catherine Langevin Semel, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth. SPINA, J. The defendant was convicted of felony-murder in the first degree. The underlying felony was an armed robbery while masked. The defendant appealed. ...

Commonwealth v. Young

... relief in both cases from a single justice of this court pursuant to GL c. 211, § 3, contending that possessory firearm offenses come within § 58A (1), which permits the Commonwealth to move for pretrial detention if a defendant has been charged with "any other felony that by its ...