Trials, Criminal (U.S. Law) (World of Forensic Science)
Criminal trials in the United States are governed by criminal law, defined as the body of law charged with the definition of criminal offenses, and the regulation of apprehension, charging, and trial of suspected individuals. Criminal law delineates penalties and specifies appropriate and applicable means and modes of treatment for convicted offenders.
Criminal law refers to offenses committed against the general public, even though the victim of the crime may be a single individual. It is distinguished from civil or tort law in that they (civil and tort law) refer to offenses constituting private injuries. Historically, criminal law has taken the approach that crime is morally, as well as legally, wrong. As a result, amends must be made and retribution for the offense must be exacted through the use of the criminal trial and penalty systems, in a proportion appropriate to the magnitude of the criminal act and the degree of culpability of the perpetrator. More modern views of criminal law have taken the perspective that it ought to serve as a deterrent to the commission of crime. As the tenets of the social and behavioral sciences have been progressively incorporated into the rubric of criminal justice, the concepts of rehabilitation of the criminal offender, and the need for protection of the public welfare have arisen. Among the goals of the criminal legal system are prevention, early intervention, and active deterrence from development and expression of criminal behaviors.
Although American criminal law was derived from English common law, it has some important differences. Primary among the differences is the principle that a person may not be tried for an offense unless it is specified in the statutory code of the state. In all American state systems, there is a rule that judicial proceedings must be fair and impartial, that the rights of the accused, as well as the accuser, must not be violated, and that society must be protected. Individuals have the right to be safe in their environments.
Criminal law is comprised of (1) definitions of the types of punishable offenses; (2) the standardized system for classifying crimes, by severity of general harm inflicted, as misdemeanors or felonies; (3) the specifications applied to the judgment of crime that indicate specific provisions or mitigations for criminal legislation, such as insanity, degree of mental illness (often utilized by the terminology of "guilty, but mentally ill"), necessity, and self-defense; and (4) guidelines for determining national jurisdiction over crimes with an international aspect, such as crimes committed on American soil by foreign nationals, crimes committed by Americans who are located in other countries, and crimes committed on aircraft or maritime vessels located in international waters.
The framework for the procedure and practice of criminal law is embedded in the principle of legality. First, it states that crimes can only be defined in the context of a law prohibiting a specific behavior. If there is no law against a particular act, its occurrence is not a crime. Second, criminal statutes must be rigorously adhered to; they must be construed fairly and consistently, with little or no ambiguity as to their interpretation. Third, and quite importantly, laws may not be applied retroactively; a person may not be tried according to a law enacted after the commission of the crime. Fourth, the language of the law, and the wording of criminal statutes, must be clear, direct, and unambiguous: individuals should be able to clearly understand the concept of violation of specific laws, as well as the potential penalties associated with the possible infraction. Lastly, a person may not generally be tried for the same offense twice (this is also referred to as double jeopardy). In the federal system of the United States, a person may be tried for the same crime in different judicial systems; that is, a person can be subject to both a criminal and a civil trial for a single offense. The principle of the statute of limitations provides the maximum amount of time that can elapse between the commission of a crime and the trial associated with it: generally speaking, the amount of time that may elapse between arrest and indictment and the commencement of the criminal trial can vary according to the seriousness of the offense. In the United States, there is no statute of limitations imposed on crimes considered to be the most heinous, including capital felonies (felony crimes punishable by death).
The principle of legal jurisdiction refers to the capacity of a court in a specific geographic region or, in the case of international crime, a country to take valid legal action. Many countries assert jurisdiction over the acts of their nationals even when they are in other countries, and refuse to turn over their citizens to law enforcement agencies in other countries in which their nationals are accused of the commission of a crime or crimes. American nationals who commit crimes in other countries may only be extradited if that is authorized or required by a valid treaty with the affected country.
In the United States, within-country jurisdiction is typically limited to criminal acts occurring in part, or in entirety, within the geographic boundaries of a single state. Historically, if a crime was committed that crossed territorial lines, such as a person in one state throwing an incendiary device across state lines and causing an explosion in a building on the other side of the state line, only the state with the explosion might be considered to have jurisdiction. In modern legal practice, many states have enacted statutes allowing them to extend their jurisdictional boundaries to encompass offenses in which the relevant conduct, or the relevant result, or any part of it, occurred in the specific state. Federal statutes give jurisdiction to United States courts in cases of forgery of ship's papers, bribery of an American official, acts of treason, enticing to commit desertion from the service of the United States military, crimes committed on vessels registered to the United States or on American aircraft flying over international airspace, and similar acts, whether or not those acts actually occurred within the geographic boundaries of the U.S.
There are two mandatory components of an act that lead to definition of a crime. It must be a voluntary action or voluntary omission of an action (legal term: actus reus); and it must be accompanied by a specific mental state, referred to as the guilty mind (legal term: mens rea). There are four types of guilty mental state: acting negligently, recklessly, knowingly, or purposely.
The critical defining feature of the act is its volitional nature. A person may not be held criminally responsible for an act committed when they could not exert voluntary control of their behavior, for example, a crime occurring during a seizure or when the individual is in a state of altered unconsciousness not induced by ingestion of illegal substances. In order to be held criminally responsible for committing an act, the perpetrator must act in some way so as to cause its occurrence; it must be possible to establish a cause and effect relationship between the outcome of the act and the individual accused of perpetrating it. An individual may also be held criminally liable for failure to commit an action when he or she was legally responsible for doing so. For example, parents may be criminally prosecuted for failure to meet their obligation to provide food and water for their children.
There are some criminal offenses for which an individual can be charged without demonstrable evidence of a guilty mental state; one of these is statutory rape. An individual need not be aware that the child is below the age of legal consent in order to be prosecuted. Others fall into the category of public welfare offenses, involving such acts as those which endanger public health or safety.
United States criminal law makes a distinction between the concept of ignorance of the facts (in other words, a mistake) and ignorance of the law. In the former, a person is not held liable if he or she unwittingly commits an infraction such as inadvertently picking up the suitcase of another person from a luggage carousel at the airport when it is identical in appearance to his or her own. It is not theft if the baggage was taken without the intention to steal, but rather as a result of the person taking the item believing it to be his or her own personal property. Conversely, being unaware of the text of the law does not excuse a person from prosecution for violating it. It is a commonly held doctrine that criminal acts should be recognized as immoral, societally unacceptable, or harmful by any reasonable adult.
The issue of criminal responsibility has remained controversial in the American criminal system. Historically, a person was not charged with criminal responsibility if he or she either lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct or to be able to exercise volitional control over conforming his or her behavior to the extent required by law. The more modern interpretation of the principle looks more strictly at the ability to appreciate the distinction between right and wrong and leaves out the segment on ability to exert control over one's behavior.
The criminal system considers four degrees of participation in a crime. A principal in the first degree is one who commits a crime alone; a principal in the second degree is one who acts to aid the principal in the first degree and is present when the crime occurs; an accessory before the fact is one who instigates, counsels the perpetrator, or encourages the commission of the crime; and an accessory after the fact is a person who receives, conceals, or otherwise assists someone known to have committed a crime, in an effort to obstruct justice from being served. A conspiracy is when two or more individuals agree to act together in order to commit a crime.
Finally, there is the issue of effectiveness of punishment as a deterrent to the commission of
SEE ALSO Criminal responsibility, historical concepts; Mens rea; Misdemeanor; Trials, civil (U.S law); Trials, international.