Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing About Courts

If anywhere you're going to be writing about mystery or something else, you'll probably be going to run into a scene when you're wondering things like: "Would the police actually do something like this in this kind of situation?"

Of course, you probably want your book to be accurate. Sure, you probably want to skip over some of the more boring things so your readers don't need to read about filling in the boring paperwork, but you surely don't want to do something that will make people think 'This just can't happen.'

Even if what you're writing is a sort of fantasy or sci-fi novel, no matter what, every place has its own legal system. What do you think inter-planetary laws would look like? By pointing out a bit of this information at times, you can make a world seem more... real. Some terms you should keep in mind are:

Court Trial: A trial is basically an allegation that someone has done something wrong, either to a person or the state. The former is a civil case and the latter is a criminal case, and both are pursued differently in the U.S.

Prosecution: The side which alleges that something wrong has occurred. Called the plaintiff in civil cases.

The Defense: The other side which says that the defendant (the one accused) has not done anything wrong.

The Judge: In most countries, the judge pretty much keeps quiet and only intervenes when necessary.

But anyway, I wasn't going to post only about fictional law systems anyway. Here are a few things I found that are often misunderstood:

1. Retrial: Many people seem to believe that criminal trials usually take a whole lot of time and retrials. They say that usually how court scenes are shown on T.V. with a single case are wrong. Actually, the opposite is true.
Sure, retrials happen a lot, but you need a reason to re-appeal. You can't just do it because you didn't like the verdict. You have to either show that there's new evidence, or something was wrong with the earlier trial. You can apply to a higher court, but there is a tendency in higher courts to just 'rubber stamp' the verdicts from lower ones. It doesn't always happen, but that's the general trend.

2. The Jury: There are several things to keep in mind about a jury. In a criminal case, the judge can overturn a guilty verdict from the jury, but not the opposite. Once either of them hand in a 'not guilty' verdict, the defendant is free to go, and there's very little that can be done after that due to Double Jeopardy. If evidence is found later, they can be held on perjury charges, but the State rarely has the opportunity to appeal to a higher court.
Jury selection is a new process which involves the lawyers choosing jury members who they think are going to be sympathetic to their causes and removing those who may be sympathetic to the victim.

3. Evidence: In order to be convicted in a criminal trial, the jury members must be 99% sure that the person has done the crime. In a civil case this standard of evidence is dropped to over 50%. The two standards are known as 'beyond reasonable doubt' and 'preponderance of evidence' respectively. The standard of evidence 'beyond a shadow of a doubt' is impossible to achieve and is never used in legal terms. That's why sometimes people get off int he criminal trial but are convicted for wrongful death in civil trials, like O. J. Simpson.

4. Circumstantial Evidence: This kind of evidence can be used to convict, but neither direct or circumstantial evidence is more important than the other. Both are important so long as they prove a case.

All in all though, you might want to get crazy sometimes. The law is often odd, and lots of people said that the situation in 12 Angry Men could never happen, but, after all, it did.

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