What to Expect at Court

Tips for Going to Court

 

The legal system is an entirely new world for many victims thrust into the complicated process. NCVAN can help prepare victims to better understand and navigate the process. Click the below links for more information.

 

Tips for Victims/Survivors Going to Observe the Proceeding

Tips for Testifying Victims/Survivors

Tips for Domestic Violence Cases Going to Court (third-party site)

The Legal Process

Legal Terminology

Tips for Victims/Survivors Going to Observe the Proceeding

 

The Victim/Witness Legal Assistant in the District Attorney’s office prosecuting your case can help prepare you for the courtroom. The following are some general guidelines that you may find helpful in the courtroom:

  • Maintain a serious and dignified manner in and around the courthouse and throughout the trial. Dress appropriately.
  • Do not discuss the case in the halls, restrooms, or anywhere that an ally of the defense or a juror may overhear. Most district attorney’s offices have a special waiting area for victims and witnesses. Check with the Victim/Witness Legal Assistant for location and information.
  • Never speak to a judge or juror, unless you are in the courtroom and testifying under oath – or unless the judge specifically asks you a question in the courtroom. If you come in contact with a judge or juror in the hall, elevator or during a recess or lunch break, do not speak to them.
  • You may see the defendant, for the first time since the crime, in the courtroom. Try to prepare yourself for the emotional impact of this encounter. It may upset you to hear the defendant say “not guilty.” Sometimes these are the first words that victims have heard the defendant speak.
  • Prepare yourself to hear upsetting and graphic testimony.
  • If you are the family or loved one of someone who was murdered, you may hear horrifying details of the crime for the first time. Ask the District Attorney to fully review the details of your loved one’s death prior to the trial.
  • If you find yourself becoming extremely upset during the trial, quietly leave the courtroom.
  • If you have any questions or concerns during the trial, write them down and give them to the district attorney or Victim/Witness Legal Assistant. Don’t interrupt or whisper during the trial.
  • If the press is covering the trial, you may be approached and questioned by reporters. You should refrain from answering any questions or making any comments until after the trial is over. Be polite and refer them to the District Attorney.
  • Prepare yourself to hear the verdict, which could be a highly emotional time for you and your family.

Tips for Testifying Victims/Survivors

 

The Victim/Witness Legal Assistant in the District Attorney’s office prosecuting your case can help prepare you for the courtroom. The following are some helpful tips to remember when testifying at any court proceeding:

  • Neat appearance and proper dress are important.
  • Prior to testifying, try to recall the crime scene, what was there, and exactly what happened, the best you can. Don’t try to memorize what you are going to say.
  • Always tell the truth. If you do not know the answer to a question, say, “I don’t know.” Do not guess.
  • Listen very carefully to each question, making sure you understand completely, before answering. If you do not understand a question, ask for it to be repeated or rephrased.
  • Speak clearly and loudly enough so that the judge and jury can hear you. Be polite, firm and clear in your answers.
  • Answer only the questions asked and then stop. Don’t provide information unless you are specifically asked.
  • If the questions you are asked requires a “yes” or “no” answer, answer “yes” or “no” unless your answer cannot be fully understood without an explanation. You may ask the judge if you can explain your answer or elaborate.
  • Stop talking if an objection is made by one of the attorneys or if the judge interrupts. The judge or one of the attorneys will tell you if you can continue your testimony. If you have forgotten the question, ask to have it repeated.
  • Although you may feel nervous and frightened by testifying, it is important to be serious and focused in your approach.
  • If you become upset while testifying, pause until you can regain your composure or ask the judge if you can have a few moments. The judge may call a recess to allow you this time. You may want to ask for a drink of water.
  • If you are asked if you have talked with anyone about the case, answer truthfully. You have probably spoken with police, the district attorney, family and friends. If you say only “yes” in response to the question, the defense attorney may imply that you have been told what to say. It is best to tell whom you have spoken with and that you only have discussed the facts of the case.

The Legal Process

View the Criminal Justice flowchart below.

Legal Terminology

Click the box below to expand legal terminology or visit here.

Legal Terminology

Affidavit: A written, sworn statement in which the writer swears that the information contained is true.

 

Aggravating Factor: Factors that make a crime worse than similar crimes. They are defined by law and include: gang related activity, an elderly victim, especially cruel offenses, or that the defendant does not support his family.

 

Alleged: Said to be true, but not yet proven to be true; until the trial is over, the crime may be called an “alleged crime.”

 

Appeal: A request by the defense or the prosecution that a higher court review the results of a decision on certain motions or in a completed trial. This can be an appeal from district court to superior court or from superior court to an appeals court. 

 

Arraignment: The process where the defendant is brought to court, advised of the charges against him, and directed to plead. He may plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest). If the defendant fails to plead, he is tried as if he had pleaded not guilty.

 

Arrest Warrant:   An order made on behalf of the State, based on a complaint and signed by a judge, authorizing law enforcement to arrest a person who is thought to have committed a crime.

 

Bail: An amount of money set by the court that allows a person charged with a crime to be released from custody. The purpose of bail is to insure that the offender will be present at all court dates.

 

Bailiff: An officer or attendant of the court who has charge of keeping order during court session, custody of the jury, and custody of the prisoners while in court. 

 

Calendar: A document listing the cases for the court hearing on that specific date.

 

Composite: A picture of the assailant made from an artist’s drawing or assembly of facial features.

 

Continuance: Sometimes court proceedings cannot take place as scheduled and the case is scheduled for a later date. Such a postponement is called a continuance. A judge can grant or deny a continuance.

 

Corroborating Witness: A person who is able to give information that agrees with the victim or attacker’s statement about the attack.

 

Cross-Examination:   The questioning of a witness by an opposing party in a trial. For instance, the victim in a case is the State’s witness, so the cross-examination is the defense attorney questioning that witness.

 

CRS: Initials indicating that a case is in superior criminal court. CR indicates a case in district court.

 

Defense Attorney: The lawyer who represents the defendant in a legal proceeding.

 

Discovery: The complete file of all law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies involved in the
investigation of the offenses alleged to have been committed by the defendant. This may be pictures, audio recordings, statements, test results, letters, police reports, interviews, etc.

 

District Attorney: An elected official who represents the State of North Carolina and whose job is to prosecute the offender. The District Attorney may assign the case to an Assistant District Attorney for prosecution. (ADA)

 

District Court: Misdemeanor cases are tried in this court before a judge without a jury. If convicted, a defendant may appeal for a new trial in Superior Court before a jury.

 

Defendant: In criminal cases a person who is charged with a crime. In civil cases the person who is sued.

 

Evidence: Testimony and exhibits that help to prove either the victim or assailant’s statements.

 

Eye Witness: A person who witnessed the crime.

 

Failure to Appear (FTA): Defendant does not appeal for court and an order for his arrest may be issued.

 

Felony: A serious crime such as burglary or murder. Punishments for felonies range from fines and/or

imprisonment from one year up to the death penalty.

 

Grand Jury: Comprised of 12 to 18 citizens of the county. The Constitution requires that a person charged with a felony must be indicted by a grand jury. The grand jury hears evidence in a closed meeting with prosecutors, investigating agencies, and witnesses to decide if the defendant should go to trial in Superior Court.

 

Hung Jury: A jury whose members cannot unanimously agree that the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

 

Indictment: A formal written statement prepared by the District Attorney and issued by a grand jury charging a person with a crime.

 

Indigent Defendant: An accused person who has been found by the court to not be capable of paying for a private attorney.

 

Jury: Twelve county residents sworn to determine certain facts by listening to testimony in order to decide whether the accused is guilty or not.

 

Lineup: A group of five or six people who are viewed (in person or by pictures) by a victim or witness in an attempt to determine whether one of them is the person who committed the crime.

 

Magistrate: An officer of the district court whose jurisdiction is defined by the General Assembly and includes accepting guilty pleas and entering judgment in certain misdemeanors as well as issuing search and arrest warrants, and setting bond.

 

Misdemeanor: Crime less serious than a felony. Punishment may be as much as two years in prison or a fine, or both.

 

Mitigating Factor: A factor that makes a crime less deserving of punishment than similar crimes. They are defined by law and include: a young defendant, defendant who was honorably discharged from the armed forces, that the defendant supports his family or has a steady work history. 

 

Mug Shots: Pictures of people made at the time they have been arrested for a crime.

 

Perjury: Deliberate, false testimony under oath.

 

Plea Agreement (Plea Bargain): An agreement made between the district attorney, the defendant, and the defense attorney in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a crime (usually a lesser crime than the original charge). The plea must be submitted to the court (judge) for approval in a hearing.

 

Polygraph Exam: A test that uses a machine to measure changes in a person’s heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure while questions are asked. The results are not admissible in court.

 

Probable Cause Hearing: A hearing before a district court judge to determine if a felony was
committed; the evidence must be such that a reasonable person would believe that this specific crime was committed, and that it is probable that the person being accused committed that crime. If the judge decides there is probable cause, the case will be sent to the grand jury to consider whether or not it will return an indictment. A defendant can choose to waive probable cause, in which the defendant signs a form and the case is sent to the grand jury.

 

Prosecutor:   See District Attorney.

 

Public Defender:   An attorney employed by a government agency to represent defendants who are unable to hire their own lawyer.

 

Rule 24 Hearing: A hearing before a judge in first degree murder cases to determine if the State will seek the death penalty in that case.

 

Subpoena: A court order directing a witness to be present in court to testify at the time and place stated. A subpoena may also include an order to produce documents or records. Failure to comply constitutes contempt of court and may result in a fine or imprisonment up to 30 days.

 

Superior Court: Felony cases are tried in criminal superior court before a jury, as are misdemeanor convictions appealed from District Court. Guilty pleas and plea bargains of felony cases may be handled in Superior Court.

 

Suspect: A person who is believed to have committed a crime.

 

Testimony: Statements made in court by a person who, before testifying, is required to take an oath to tell the truth.

 

Verdict: The decision a jury in Superior Court, or a judge in District Court, makes at the end of a trial about whether the defendant is guilty or not. A jury verdict must be unanimous. 

 

Victim Impact Statement: A statement, either written or oral, from the victim to be given to the sentencing

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