Is a trial judge required to give a definition of beyond a reasonable doubt?

The trial judge must explain the concept of beyond a reasonable doubt to jurors. This is a basic requirement of due process. The U.S. Supreme Court explained in Victor v. Nebraska (1994) that "so long as the court instructs the jury on the necessity that the defendant's guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the Constitution does not require that any particular form of words be used in advising the jury of the government's burden of proof."

What are the basic types of crimes?

Crimes are divided into three basic categories: (1) felonies, (2) misdemeanors, and (3) infractions. Felonies are the most serious offenses that lead to longer-term confinement. The basic rule is that any crime from which a person can serve a year or more in jail is a felony. Misdemeanors are less serious criminal offenses for which the person usually receives a fine or a jail term of less than a year. Finally, infractions are very petty crimes—generally at the local level—for which a person usually only has to pay a fine and not serve any jail time.

Many states further subdivide felonies and misdemeanors into different classes.

Who determines whether conduct constitutes a felony or a misdemeanor?

Legislative, executive, and judicial branches all have a role to play in this important determination. The primary responsibility falls with the legislative branch, as the legislature classifies certain offenses as either felonies or misdemeanors. The legislature—at the federal, state or local level—may set penalties for certain offenses. Thus, the crime of murder is a felony established by law. However, a law may provide a range of penalties for certain conduct—such as possession of marijuana—that may constitute either a felony or a misdemeanor.

However, the executive and judicial branches still have a role in what offense a person is charged and/or convicted. For example, a prosecutor—a member of the

Murder, the most heinous of crimes, is categorized as a felony (iStock).

Murder, the most heinous of crimes, is categorized as a felony (iStock).

executive branch—often has the discretion to determine whether certain conduct should be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor. This is referred to as prosecutorial discretion. Oftentimes, a criminal defendant's attorney may bargain with the prosecutor's office—a process called plea bargaining—in an attempt to have the defendant plead guilty to a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

The judicial branch also has a role to play in whether a defendant is sentenced to a felony or misdemeanor. The jury will decide whether a defendant's conduct fits into one crime or another, while the judge often will impose a sentence pursuant to the jury's findings.

What are examples of crimes that constitute felonies?

The more serious crimes are felonies. These include murder, kidnapping, rape, arson, sexual assault, and burglary. Generally speaking, serious crimes that involve harm to persons will be classified as felonies.

What are the legal results of a felony conviction?

Obviously, a person convicted of a felony will be imprisoned for a certain amount of time. Furthermore, some states have so-called "three strikes laws" where a third felony conviction could lead to a life sentence even if the specific crime in question in isolation called for a much shorter sentence.

But, there are collateral consequences of a felony conviction that attach to a person after he or she has served his or her sentence. These collateral consequences vary from state to state. In many states, a person convicted of a felony cannot vote, cannot serve on juries, or own a firearm. They may not be able to hold down certain jobs or engage in certain professions. As a practical reality, it is much more difficult for a person convicted of a felony to obtain a job than for someone who does not have such a serious criminal record.

All of these are reasons why if a person is charged with a crime, he or she should consider any agreement with the prosecution that would require them to plead guilty only to a misdemeanor.

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