A criminal must be dealt with by law, he must reap what he sow. However, before he is put into prison, he is guaranteed protection by the Constitution through due process of law. According to our constitution, all men are innocent unless proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt before a court of law. Before an accused is incarcerated, he must undergo several stages at different venues. It may start from the lowest state courts and end up in the highest federal court of the land. Each and every court that his case shall pass through has its own role and function in his prosecution or protection.
For a better understanding of how the United States judicial structure works, let us envision a crime such as manslaughter committed in the state of Georgia. I made reference to Georgia because this state’s judicial structure is typical of most of the other states’ judicial structure (Rawlings).
Let us take for example Billy who allegedly killed Sam. Before he is convicted of this crime, he must undergo a series of procedures guaranteed by the constitution to provide him with all the opportunity to defend his side. The first of the series is the initiation of the prosecution. In this stage, there are three ways in which Billy’s prosecution may be initiated (CrimeVictimLaw), the first is when the police responds to a call that a crime is happening or has happened and upon arriving at the scene makes their own investigation.
Another mode is when the victim reports to the prosecutor’s office directly which prompts the prosecutor’s office to make their own investigation. In such instance, the prosecutor’s office may either ask the police to seek criminal charges or conduct a grand jury investigation (CrimeVictimLaw). The grand jury, composed of 23 randomly-selected people, is going to hear the witnesses without a judge’s presence and examine the evidence gathered to decide on whether or not there is reason to believe that Billy actually committed the crime imputed on him (CrimeVictimLaw).
If in this stage the investigation shows that Billy maybe guilty of killing Sam, the prosecution shall now file formal charges against Billy, otherwise Billy will be set free. When the prosecution files its formal charges, it must identify the crime committed, in this case it may either be unlawful and dangerous manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. The prosecution must also show that all the elements of said crime were present. The elements of involuntary manslaughter are: (1) an unintentional killing; (2) proximately caused by either (a) an unlawful act not amounting to a felony and not ordinarily dangerous to human life, or (b) culpable negligence (North Carolina v. Hudson), whereas, the elements of unlawful or dangerous manslaughter are that (i) the defendant ‘s act must cause the death, (ii) the defendant ‘s act must be unlawful, (iii) the defendant ‘s act must be dangerous (Crimnet).
The next stage of prosecution is the arraignment and bail. In the arraignment stage, the judge will formally inform Billy of the charges against him and give him an opportunity to enter a plea to the charge (jennifer). Billy, t during this stage is assigned a lawyer if he has not acquired the services of a private practitioner. Also in this stage, he can make bail. Bail is a fixed amount of money which sole purpose is to guarantee that the defendant shall appear before the court in all scheduled hearings. Some states release the accused on recognizance, which means that he can be released with the promise that he will return to court without posting bail.
After arraignment comes the discovery and motions stage. At this stage, the parties for both the prosecution and the defense are required to exchange information relevant to the case. The prosecution “must disclose to the defense attorney statements of witnesses, police reports, scientific tests and any evidence that may support the defendant’s claim” (CrimeVictimLaw) that he either did not commit the crime imputed or that he has a valid and lawful reason, which in the eyes of the law is a justifying circumstance, for committing the crime. Also in this stage, motions are filed by either party in instances where either party does not agree with the evidence presented or when the evidence presented is not admissible in court, i.e. evidence from unlawful searches and seizures. The motions filed are brought before the judge and he is the one who makes the decision on the issues presented.
The next phase is the disposition stage. At this stage, the case may end in two ways, Billy may enter a guilty plea or the case may be dismissed. However, if Billy does not enter a guilty plea, he will go to trial in which case he is given the option of a “bench trial” or a “jury trial” (CrimeVictimLaw). The former is decided by the judge sitting in his court while the latter is decided by a jury composed of twelve randomly selected individuals. After the trial, the next stage is the sentencing of the accused, he may be merited with imprisonment, a suspended sentence, a split sentence or he may be released on probation.
In all the stages mentioned, the court that has jurisdiction is dependent on several factors. Either he will be tried in the state court or the federal courts. Only in cases where (1) the defendant is a resident of a different state and the case involves a significant amount of money; or (2) the case involves a question of federal law; or (3) the United States is a party to the case (Rawlings) may the federal courts be resorted to. Thus, in the normal flow of things Billy shall be tried in the state courts only. The state court that has general jurisdiction – handles all civil case, felony crimes, cases involving title to land, divorces and equitable actions – is the Superior Court (Rawlings).
If Billy finds that there was an error in law or procedure that affected his conviction, he may file an appeal with the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is composed of 11 judges in divisions of 3. In cases where the three judges are not in agreement, then the case shall be raised to the court en banc, or as a whole and the decision shall be based on a majority vote (Rawlings). If in case the Georgia Court of Appeals rules against Billy, he may make an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. An appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court is not a right, it is on the discretion of the Supreme Court to entertain an appeal before it. Only in cases where the Court of Appeals made a manifest error of law shall the Supreme Court give an appeal due course, wherein the nine justices of the Supreme Court shall deicide by majority vote (Rawlings). If the Supreme Court does not entertain Billy’s appeal, the ruling of the Court of Appeals shall become final and Billy must perform what the decision orders.
The structure of the federal courts are the same with state courts – decisions maybe appealed to the Federal Court of Appeals and then to the highest court of the land, the United States Supreme Court – difference lies only on the cases that they entertain. As with district courts, appeal to the Federal Court of Appeals is a right whereas Appeal to the United States Supreme Court is discretionary, meaning that it can pick and choose cases and hear only the non-frivolous appeals that present truly novel issues” (Wikipedia).
In all the stages of appeal whether in the state courts or federal courts, it must be made clear that what can be appealed is a ruling of conviction, if in any stage of the trial a court decides that Billy is not guilty beyond reasonable doubt, he will be released and he shall be immune from another case based on the same grounds and arising from the same act.
In conclusion, the United States Criminal Justice System is unique, our country has developed a way in which all states regardless of independence from one another is still bound by a greater court. Our justice system also came up with several stages and multiple appeals as granted by the Constitution to a defendant to guarantee that every man has his day in court and that he can aptly defend himself. It provides that due process shall be given to each and everyone regardless of crime and race.
CrimeVictimLaw. Stages of Prosecution. Retrieved December 8, 2008, from http://www.crimevictimlaw.com/criminal/stages.html
Crimnet. Manslaughter. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from http://law.anu.edu.au/criminet/tmans.html
North Carolina v. Hudson. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from http://www.aoc.state.nc.us/www/public/sc/opinions/1997/356-96-1.htm
Stages of Prosecution. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from Law Offices of Jennifer Monroe: http://www.exclusivelycriminaldefense.com/StagesOfProsecution.html
Rawlings, Tom C. A Brief Introduction to the Judicial Structure of the United States. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from
Wikipedia. United States Federal Courts. Retrieved December 8, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_courts