Definition of Key Terms

Definition of Key Terms


In the context of criminal law, “aggravated” means that a crime is made worse by certain circumstances, such as intent to commit another crime, violence, and presence of a deadly weapon.


An “aggravating circumstance” refers to a fact or situation that increases the culpability for a criminal act. Aggravating circumstances generally include evidence of future dangerousness, evidence relating to the circumstances of the crime, the defendant’s prior criminal record, and evidence about the victim and victim’s family. Some states list aggravating circumstances in their statutes while others do not list them but admit them by practice.


“Amicus brief” is a written statement prepared and filed by a person or organization who is not a party to a lawsuit but who has a strong interest in the subject matter.


A “bifurcated trial” refers to a trial divided into two stages: (1) guilt phase and (2) penalty phase. During the guilt phase, a jury decides the defendant’s guilt or innocence. If the defendant is found guilty, the trial moves to a penalty phase in which the jury receives additional information and decides whether or not the defendant should be executed.


“Capital murder” means murder for which death penalty may be imposed.


[Latin: “to be more fully informed”]
“Certiorari” is a document issued by an appellate court at its discretion to review the cases from lower courts. The U.S. Supreme Court usually issues writs of certiorari to review cases.


“Clemency” refers to the power of a governor or an official in the executive branch to nullify a criminal conviction, to reduce his criminal sentence, or to delay an execution. The governor usually has the power to grant clemency, but an administrative board takes part in making recommendations to the governor in many states. Some of the reasons for granting clemency are mental problems and doubts about the guilt of the defendants.


A “commutation” is a reduction in the sentence that has already been judicially imposed. It is the most common form of clemency in capital cases. The usual commutation sought by defendants is the reduction of the death sentence to life imprisonment.


In the civil context, a “complaint” refers to the initial pleading that states the basis for the plaintiff’s claim, the basis for the court’s jurisdiction, and the demand for relief. In the criminal context, a complaint refers to a formal charge accusing a person of an offense.


A “death-qualified jury” consists of jurors who are able to fairly consider both execution and life in prison, without strong predispositions towards either, as possible sentences for a guilty defendant. Death-qualified jurors must be able to consider both aggravating and mitigating evidence and to render a death sentence in an appropriate case. Jurors are questioned about their death penalty attitudes during the voir dire to determine whether they are death-qualified, and dismissed if they are not.


The 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution contain the Due Process Clause, which prohibits the government from depriving a person of life, liberty, or property. “Due Process under the law” refers to the conduct of legal proceedings that follow established rules and principles in order to protect and enforce private rights.


"Extraditon" the process by which one country (or state) returns a person charged with a crime in another country to the country where the crime occured.


A “felony” is a crime usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death. Felony murder is when a death results from attempting to commit or during committing any felony.


[Latin: “that you have the body”]
The writ of “habeas corpus” allows an inmate to challenge the legality of his detention. The inmate, who is the petitioner, challenges the state or federal government to justify the continued imprisonment of the petitioner. One of the purposes of habeas corpus proceedings is to bring a check on the criminal justice process.


“Ineffective assistance of counsel” is established when the defendant satisfies both prongs of the Strickland test, which was established by the Supreme Court to evaluate the performance of the lawyer. First, a defendant must show that his lawyer was deficient in his performance. Second, a defendant must show that he was prejudiced because of the lawyer’s deficiency and that the outcome of the trial would have been different.


Mitigating circumstances are the evidence defense presents in the sentencing phase in order to provide reasons why the defendant should not receive the death sentence. These circumstances may reduce thedegree of culpability of a criminal act. Some of the mitigating circumstances include lack of prior criminal record, abusive childhood, mental problems, defendant’s youth, and defendant’s showing of remorse. If the defense presents evidence as mitigating, such evidence is constitutionally required to be admitted as long as it is relevant.


“Plea bargaining” is an agreement in a criminal case in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for reducing the original charges, dismissing some of the charges, or limiting the punishment a court can impose on the defendant. Plea bargaining is important because most of the criminal cases are settled by plea bargaining than by a jury trial.


“Reprieve” is a form of clemency and refers to delaying a death sentence or other criminal sentence.


An "unadjudicated" offense is one in which the defendant has not been officially tried and convicted by a court of law. Typically, there is some evidence that the defendant committed the offense.


[French: “to see to speak," interpreted as "speak the truth"]
"Voir dire" is the process that determines if there are any other causes that might impede a juror's fair evaluation of the case, such as knowing the parties involved in the case, being a victim of a similar crime as in the case being tried, or having an occupation that might lead to bias. In capital trials, jurors must be "death-qualified" (see above), meaning that they must be willing to impose the death penalty. This determination is made by the judge during the voir dire, when jurors in capital cases are subjected to intensive questioning about their attitudes towards the death penalty by the judge and the attorneys.