Legal Lingo: Understanding Key Terms in a Criminal Trial

Legal Lingo: Understanding Key Terms in a Criminal Trial

If you find yourself charged with a crime or somehow involved in a criminal court case in North Carolina, you’re likely to encounter a lot of unfamiliar jargon. In this installment of our Legal Lingo blog series, we’ll explore and define some of the terms you’re likely to encounter during a criminal case so that you’re better prepared to navigate the legal process.

Key Terms During a Criminal Case


An alibi is a defense strategy in which the accused claims to have been elsewhere at the time the crime was committed. The accused must provide concrete evidence that they were somewhere else when the crime was committed, such as eyewitness accounts, surveillance footage, or receipts. It is not enough to simply claim to have been elsewhere without any evidence to support it.


An arraignment is a crucial step in the criminal justice system, as it marks the beginning of the trial process. During this formal court proceeding, a defendant is informed of the charges against them and is asked to enter a plea—typically “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “no contest.” The judge also sets bail at this time, which can determine whether the defendant will remain in custody until their trial or be released.


Bail is a financial arrangement that allows a defendant to be released from custody while awaiting trial, ensuring their appearance in court. The amount of bail is set by the court and can vary based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, and their likelihood of fleeing. If the defendant fails to appear in court as scheduled, they forfeit the bail money and a warrant may be issued for their arrest.

It’s important to note that bail does not determine guilt or innocence, but rather serves as a way to ensure the defendant’s presence in court.


Discovery is the pre-trial process where both the prosecution and defense exchange evidence and information related to the case. This is a crucial step in the legal process, as it enables both sides to prepare for trial and ensure that each party has a fair opportunity to present their case. 


A felony is a more serious criminal offense, often involving violence or significant harm, and is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.

Grand Jury

A grand jury is a group of citizens convened to review evidence and determine whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges against a suspect. A grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence, but only whether there is sufficient evidence to reasonably believe that a person or organization should be charged with a crime.


An indictment is a formal accusation that charges an individual with committing a crime. It is issued by a grand jury based on evidence presented by the prosecution. The indictment will outline the specific charges and allegations against the individual, and once an indictment has been issued, the accused will be officially charged with the crime and will be required to stand trial.

Once again, it is important to note that an indictment does not necessarily mean that the individual is guilty of the crime they are being accused of. It simply means that there is enough evidence to bring the case to trial. The burden of proof still lies with the prosecution, who must prove the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.


A misdemeanor is a less serious criminal offense, often involving nonviolent crimes such as traffic violations, petty theft, or disorderly conduct. Misdemeanors are typically punishable by fines, probation, or a short jail sentence.

Plea Bargain

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a reduced sentence. A plea bargain both helps the prosecution secure a conviction and allows the defendant to avoid the risk of a more severe sentence if convicted at trial. A plea bargain also helps to avoid the time and expense of a trial, which can be lengthy and costly for both sides. 

Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is the legally defined time limit within which criminal charges must be filed, varying based on the severity of the offense. This helps ensure that criminal cases are resolved in a timely manner, preventing the possibility of evidence becoming stale or unreliable over time. It also serves to protect defendants from being prosecuted for crimes committed so long ago that they may not remember the details or may no longer have access to evidence that could prove their innocence.

Turn to Starling, Rodriguez & Associates

If you’re facing any kind of criminal charges, you need much more than just basic knowledge of legal terms; you need the representation of an experienced and knowledgeable criminal attorney. The criminal law team at Starling, Rodriguez & Associates understands how serious it is when you or a loved one has been accused of a crime. Whether you’re facing a drug possession charge, trafficking charges, DUI/DWI or any other felony or misdemeanor offense, we are here to defend you and protect your rights. Contact us today to put us on your case.

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