Ten interesting things about the US legal system

The latest in my ‘Learn Something New Every Day’ series – taken from The Great Courses’ Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works (Lecture 30: When forensics are on trial)

1. Jail and Prison are different. A jail is a local holding facility for those awaiting trail or for completion of short sentences (under a year) only.  A prison is a State or Federal Govt run facility for long-term sentences.

2. A ‘trial’ is called such because it is a forum where ‘triers of fact’ (a judge or a jury) make the determination on whether the facts support a guilty or innocent result.

3. A bench trial is heard by one or more judges (only). A jury trial includes 6-12 jurors (plus alternates)

4. Criminal case is a crime against ‘society’ (regardless of whether there is also a specific victim). For people whose actions break the rules we have created to manage our society/behaviours.  Cases are brought by federal or state authorities (depending on which laws were broken) instead of the victim (who may never need to be involved or may not be alive to).  Federal or State Authorities have prosecutors on staff, but it’s up to the defendant to hire a defence attorney (or be assigned a public defender).

5. Civil case  is for disagreements between people and/or institutions. Person or representative makes claim against another person/institution.  Whoever makes the claim is the ‘plaintiff ‘. Whoever is being complained about is the ‘defendant’. Civil cases are heard in court without a jury and a decision is made by a judge as to who is responsible and what the penalty might be (usually financial ‘damages’).

6. A person cannot receive a custodial sentence (jail or prison) for a civil case.

7. The Prosecution in a criminal case is not obliged to release their witness list until the morning they are scheduled to appear. This aims to reduce the chances of witness tampering, threats or murder. Lovely!

8. Until recently in the US, the defendant was not entitled to see the evidence being used against them. Recent changes to the laws relating to ‘discovery’ (the sharing of information between parties) changed that.

9. There really is an NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). There’s also an Army Criminal Investigation Command and an Air Force Office of Special Investigation. But those don’t have their own TV shows yet J.

10. Despite what TV shows like The Mentalist and Lie to Me say, there is no way to tell if someone is lying based only on their body language. The best you can hope for using body language is to detect a person’s level of comfort or discomfort in a situation. A true psychopath isn’t made uncomfortable by lying and so wouldn’t issue traditional signs of discomfort no matter how closely you watch the creases in their eyes.