The procedure in criminal cases is substantially the same throughout the United States. The person suspected of crime is taken into custody by a police officer, sometimes by service of a warrant of arrest. If the crime is serious, the case is first presented to a grand jury, which draws up an indictment if there is sufficient evidence to justify trial; otherwise it discharges the accused. While action is pending, the party charged may be released on bail. Trial is by jury or before a judge alone if a jury is not required, or if the defendant consents. The government presents its case (i.e., attempts to prove the allegations of the indictment), through the public prosecutor, usually called the district attorney, while the accused is represented by counsel that he or she has chosen or that the court has appointed. The legal presumption of innocence puts the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on the prosecution, unless, of course, the defendant pleads guilty to the charge. A defendant may agree to plead guilty as a result of plea bargaining; most U.S. criminal cases are now settled before trial in this manner. Special rules restricting the introduction of evidence in criminal trials further protect the defendant. If the accused is found or adjudged innocent, he or she is discharged; if the accused is found guilty, the judge pronounces sentence. (For types of criminal penalties, see capital punishment; corporal punishment; prison.) If the defendant is convicted, an appeal may be filed; the prosecution, however, cannot appeal an acquittal. Generally speaking, this procedure is confined to felonies; misdemeanors, being relatively less serious offenses, are handled in a more summary fashion. It is generally accepted that no court will enforce the criminal law of another jurisdiction, but by means of extradition a fugitive from justice may be delivered to the competent authorities.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.