Criminal law maintains public safety and order by defining criminal conduct and stating the penalty for such conduct. The defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent, and the government (“the state”) must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A person found guilty in a criminal case is subject to punishment that could include probation, a fine or order to make restitution, or incarceration. Crimes are categorized as misdemeanors (punishable by no more than one year in jail) or felonies (punishable by more than one year in prison).
In a criminal trial, only the defendant may appeal the verdict to a higher court; the “double jeopardy” provisions of the United States and New Hampshire Constitutions prevent a defendant from being tried twice on the same charges.
How a Criminal Case Moves through the Court System1
A man is arrested by police at the scene of a housebreaking and is charged with burglary, which is a felony and can result in up to seven years in jail if he is convicted, or fifteen years if committed at night. The man, who is the “defendant,” is held in jail overnight until a court can hold a hearing on whether or not he should be released on bail until the charges against him are resolved.
The defendant appears before a Superior Court judge in the county where the crime occurred. Bail is set. The County Attorney or Attorney General then presents the case to the county grand jury where they decide whether or not there is sufficient probable cause to bring a formal charge called an indictment. Because the defendant faces time in jail and cannot afford a lawyer, the judge appoints one to represent him.
The defendant has a trial in Superior Court before a jury of 12 fellow citizens who, after hearing testimony from various witnesses on both sides of the case, find the defendant guilty of one count of burglary. The judge sets a sentencing
The judge sentences the defendant to serve six months in jail followed by one year probation.
The defendant claims legal mistakes were made during his trial. The prosecutor and the defense lawyer file written arguments called “briefs” with the Supreme Court.
After reading the briefs, the justices listen to oral arguments from each side. The appeals court does not hear any testimony but the justices ask the lawyers questions about the case during oral argument. The justices issue a written opinion (usually in less than 180 days from oral argument) in which they uphold the jury verdict which means the defendant will have to serve his prison sentence.
1Not an actual case.