Glossary of Legal Terms

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A person who has been charged with committing a crime but has not yet been tried.


A judgment finding that a defendant is not guilty of committing a particular crime.

Aggravating Circumstances

Facts about the case that tend to increase the severity of the crime. Examples of aggravating circumstances are a history of committing violent crimes or the same kind of crime, and the use of particular kinds of weapons in the commission of the crime.


To take a case to a higher court for review of the correctness of the rulings or decisions of a lower court.


The initial court hearings during which the accused is informed of his or her rights, read the charges that have been filed against him or her, and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. At the arraignment, the sitting judge also finds out if the accused person will hire his or her own attorney or will need a public defender to be appointed, and assigns the case to another judge. In all cases with the exception of murder, bond will also be set at the arraignment hearing.


To take a person suspected of committing a crime into custody so that he or she can be charged with committing the crime.

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A sum of money that the defendant is required to give to the court in order to secure freedom until the date of the trial or hearing, usually a percentage of the set bond amount. Bail is posted to guarantee that the defendant will appear at the time and date set by the judge. If the defendant does not appear, the bail is forfeited to the court.

Bench Trial

A trial with no jury; the judge alone decides on the verdict.

Bench Warrant

Process issued by the Court for the arrest of a defendant who does not appear at a trial or hearing, or who does not obey a subpoena.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The standard for the burden of proof required of the Prosecution in a criminal case. Reasonable doubt is, as the name implies, doubt for which the person can give a reason. It is a doubt that would cause a juror, after careful and unbiased consideration of the facts presented during trial, to be so undecided that he or she cannot say that he or she is convinced of a defendant's guilt. Reasonable doubt does not include all possible doubts, only those that can be based upon reason.

Burden of Proof

The requirement that a particular party must persuade the judge or jury by evidence of the truth of his or her proposition in a case. In criminal cases, the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

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An accusation made against the accused that he or she committed a particular crime.

Contempt of Court

A disruption of court proceedings or disobedience of a proper verbal order by a judge. A person found in contempt of court may be removed from the courtroom or arrested.


A postponement of the hearing of a case; not hearing the case on the scheduled date. Continuances are requested by either the prosecution or the defendant, and are allowed at the court's discretion. Continuances may also occur if there is a scheduling conflict in the court and the case cannot be tried on the date that it was originally scheduled.


A judgment finding the defendant guilty of committing the crime with which he or she has been charged.


An agency of the judicial branch of the government, which has the constitutional authority to decide questions of law and disputes brought before it.

Criminal Law

The law relating to crimes. Violations of criminal law are remedied by criminal prosecutions, brought by a public official (prosecutor).

Cross Examination

The questioning of a witness during a trial or hearing by the party other than the party that called the witness. For example, any questions asked of the prosecution's witnesses by the defendant (or his or her attorney) are considered cross-examination.

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A situation where the defendant has failed to appear in court at the designated time. Judgment can be entered against the defendant in situations of default, but this is up to the court's discretion.


A person who has been charged with a crime and is now on trial.

Defense Attorney

The lawyer who represents the defendant.


Holding the accused in jail after he or she has been arrested and before the arraignment hearing, usually no more than 72 hours. Pre-trial detention is keeping the defendant in jail between the arraignment hearing and the trial date because he or she was unable to post bail money or is too dangerous to be released (did not qualify for bail).


The final outcome of a case; the determination by the judge of the sentence that the offender will serve.


Pre-prosecution probation made available to lesser offenders as an alternative to standard prosecution and sentencing. The court and the prosecutor jointly decide that the offender and society will be better served by diverting the offender into a program of rehabilitation instead of jail time.


The "day book" of the court; a list of all cases to be heard each day, or the list of cases that are pending.

Due Process of Law

The exercise of the powers of the government under safeguards to protect the rights of the individual. Procedural due process is the right to have notice of all charges against you and to be given an opportunity to be head and to defend yourself in an orderly proceeding. Substantive due process protects your rights to marry, contract, pursue a chosen vocation/education, etc. The right to due process is protected by the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

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Equal Protection of the Law

A phrase from the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It requires that the laws be equally applied and the courts permit full access to all persons regardless of race, age, gender, etc. Any law involving a classification based on race, age, gender, or another characteristic must show that it accomplishes a legitimate state goal in order to be upheld.

Exclusionary Rule

The exclusion of any evidence that was obtained illegally.


Testimony and objects presented by the prosecutor and the defense during trial.

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A crime more serious than a misdemeanor. In Indiana, a felony is punishable by at least 180 days in prison, although some or all of the sentence may be suspended.
 Felony Sentence
Murder 45-65 years
Level 1 felony 20-40 years
Level 2 felony 10-30 years
Level 3 felony 3-16 years
Level 4 felony 2-12 years
Level 5 felony 1-6 years
Level 6 felony 0.5-2.5 years
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Grand Jury

A group of citizens who hear evidence presented by the prosecutor and decide if there is enough evidence to charge and try the person(s) accused of one or more crimes. Not all cases are presented to a grand jury; many cases are filed directly with the court with a probable cause affidavit.


A decision of a judge or jury that the defendant committed the crime with which he or she has been charged.

Guilty Plea

A statement by the accused person that he or she is guilty of the crime with which he or she is charged.

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A scheduled time during which the prosecutor, defendant, and defense attorney appear in front of the judge to present motions, evidence, or other legal matters that relate to the trial.

Hung Jury

A group of jurors that are unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and do not believe that any amount of further deliberations will result in a unanimous verdict.

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An order by the judge preventing parties to a case from taking a specified action.


The gathering of evidence by police officers and prosecutors to prove the accused committed or did not commit the crime.

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A person who presides over a court of law.


A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented in court and decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime.

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Matter of Fact

An actual happening or event, which is often said to be a question for the jury in a jury trial.

Matter of Law

A rule or principle of duty to be decided by a judge.


A crime that is less serious than a felony, usually punishable by no more than 1 year in jail (some or all of the prison term may be suspended).
Misdemeanor Class
Class A Misdemeanor Up to 1 year in jail
Class B Misdemeanor Up to 180 days in jail
Class C Misdemeanor Up to 60 days in jail


A trial that ends when the jury cannot decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, or when there is a legal procedure that is violated.

Mitigating Circumstances

Facts about the case that tend to make the crime less severe.


An oral or written request to the judge to make a decision or to take a specific action in a case.

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Not Guilty Plea

A statement by the accused that he or she did not commit the crime; in all murder cases, a plea of not guilty is automatically entered at the time of the arraignment hearing.

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A person who has been convicted of a crime.

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A lie told while a person is under oath to tell the truth.


A defendant's formal answer to the charges against him or her; the defendant can enter a plea of guilty or a plea of not guilty.

Plea Agreement

Many cases are resolved by plea agreement, in which the defendant enters a plea of guilty to some or all of the charges filed against him or her, rather than taking the case to trial. The Court will ask the defendant and the State if there is a chance the case will be resolved through plea agreement, and will set a deadline by which any discussion of a plea must take place. The deputy prosecutor assigned to the case must consider many factors before discussing a plea with the defendant, including the nature of the crime, the risk to the community, and the impact of the crime on the victim.

Pre-Sentence Investigation Report

A study of the case and the offender by the Adult Probation Department that is prepared before the sentencing hearing and submitted to the judge. The report includes information about the offender's background and the circumstances surrounding the crime committed, as well as statements from the victims and recommendations for the court for action on the sentence.

Probable Cause

The amount of proof needed by police, prosecutors, and the judge to believe that a crime was committed and that the person accused committed the crime.


A method of allowing a person convicted of an offense to be out of prison under the supervision of a probation officer for a period of time.

Pro Se

Any party who acts for himself or herself in court, without the representation of counsel.


In a criminal case, the lawyer who represents the government, the people of the jurisdiction, and the victim.

Public Defender

The attorney appointed to represent a person accused of a crime if that person cannot afford to pay for a private lawyer.

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Recidivism Rate

The number of offenders who, after being released, return to prison because they have committed new crimes.

Record Date

A hearing date set by the judge, usually one to three weeks before the scheduled trial date. At the record hearing, the attorneys must let the judge know if they will need to go forward with the trial (no plea has been agreed upon), or if they need a continuance for further preparations for trial.


The act of making good by giving the equivalent for any loss, damages, or injury. A restitution order is often used in sentencing.

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The punishment given to the offender after he or she has been found to be guilty of the crime committed. Sentencing occurs after the verdict of "guilty" has been announced or after a guilty plea is entered, usually no more than 30 days after the end of the trial.

Status Hearing

Court hearings at which the attorneys let the judge know if they will need to go to trial, and if there are any new developments in the case that need to be dealt with by the judge.


A written order for an individual's appearance in court in a situation involving someone else; subpoenas are issued for witnesses in a case by a judge or a prosecutor.


A person who is believed to have committed a crime, but who has not yet been charged or arrested.

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Statements made in court by witnesses who are under oath to tell the truth.


A court proceeding before a judge or jury at which evidence is presented to persuade the judge or jury that the accused committed the crime.

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The decision by a judge or jury of whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crime of which he or she has been accused.


The individual against whom a crime has been committed, or the family/close friends of a person who has been murdered.

Victim Impact Statement

An important part of the Pre-Sentence investigation; it is the right of the victim or his or her family members (in the case of a murder) to send a written statement or to give an oral statement to the judge during the sentencing hearing.

Voir Dire

A Latin term referring to the jury selection process.

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A voluntary action by the defendant to eliminate a legal procedure to which he or she has a right.


A legal order, usually signed by a judge, authorizing an arrest of a particular person or a search of a given place for items that must be described with particularity.


A person who has seen or knows something about a crime. The victim is usually a witness too.

Witness Conference

A discussion among the victim, witnesses, and the prosecutor to prepare for the trial.


An order from the court.

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