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Since relocating to the upper tip of Delaware, Denene and I are currently residing in an extended stay hotel, where we’ve been since we left the Writers’ Police Academy. We will remain here until closing on the new house.

Yes, we finally found a home this week and made an offer on it, after an exhausting search. We reached an agreement with the sellers just yesterday and we now have signed documents in hand. Unfortunately, the owners are unable to vacate the home until early October. But, the property is extremely nice so it should be worth the wait. In the meantime, though, we’ll remain in the hotel.

Our room here is nice and features a mini kitchen and a large work station that accommodates our computers and other necessities.

Now that we’re here, though, I have no yard work or other home project to occupy the little spare time I have during the evening hours—the time I spent feeding the birds and watering and caring for the plants in our yard. The time that took me away from everything. It was my escape. The time to allow my mind to focus on nothing but the little creatures and flowers and blue skies and the combined scents of eucalyptus and citrus trees and roses … and the smoke from all the wildfires.

Therefore, now that I do have a bit of spare time, I’ve been able to read a bit, mostly at night using my Kindle Paperwhite. I love the device because it’s small and the backlit screen allows me to peruse the “pages” without waking Denene, who, by the way, started her new job last week. She’s still teaching microbiology and cool bioterrorism stuff, but as a professor at another university, in the department of Medical & Molecular Sciences.

Anyway, to get to the point, while reading current novels and blogs and news articles, I’ve run across the misuse of various terms and information. As a result, I decided to compile and post a bit of information to help set things straight.

I hope this helps somewhat in your quest to …

Write Believable Make-Believe

Defendant: Someone who’s been accused of a crime and is involved in a court proceeding.

Defense Attorney: A lawyer who represents a defendant throughout their criminal proceedings.

Departure: A sentence that’s outside the typical guideline range. Departures can be above or below the standard range; however, the most common departure is a downward departure, a sentence reduction solely based on the defendant’s substantial assistance to the government. For example, a defendant who spills the beans to law enforcement about the criminal activity of someone else for the sole purpose of obtaining a lesser sentence. In jailhouse/layman’s terms, “a snitch.”

Diminished Capacity: A defendant is eligible for a downward departure (reduction of sentence) if they can successfully prove they suffer from a significantly reduced mental capacity, a condition that contributed substantially to the commission of the offense of which they’re charged with committing. Merely having been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense is typically not considered grounds for diminished capacity.

* This applies to the defendant only, not the defendant’s attorney, judges, or police officers. Their sometimes reduction in mental capacities is fodder for another article.

Duress: The federal sentencing guidelines allow for a downward departure if the defendant committed the offense because of serious threats, coercion, or pressure. An example is the person who’s been forced to commit a bank robbery by crooks who’re holding his family hostage until/unless he carries out the crime. The courts could/would show leniency by granting a downward departure (or complete dismissal) based upon the fact he was under severe duress at the time of the robbery.

Extreme Conduct: Here, an upward departure from the guidelines range may be appropriate if the defendant’s conduct during the commission of a crime was unusually heinous, cruel, and/or brutal. Even degrading the victim of the crime in some way may apply and earn the defendant a longer sentence that’s typically called for within the sentencing guidelines.

Brutally maiming and murdering federal agents simply because they dared to ask questions (revenge), well, that may be a crime that warrants an upward departure from the typical sentence.

 

Felony: An offense punishable by a term of imprisonment of one year or longer.

Felony Murder: A killing that takes place during the commission of another dangerous felony, such as robbery.

To get everyone’s attention, a bank robber fires his weapon at the ceiling. A stray bullet hits a customer and she dies as a result of her injury. The robber has committed felony murder, a killing, however unintentional, that occurred during the commission of a felony. The shooter’s accomplices could also be charged with the murder even if they were not in possession of a weapon or took no part in the death of the victim.

Hate Crime Motivation: An increase of sentence if the court determines that the defendant intentionally targeted a victim because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability or even due to their sexual orientation.

Indictment: An indictment is the formal, written accusation of a crime. They’re issued by a grand jury and are presented to a court with the intention of prosecution of the individual named in the indictment.

Misdemeanor: A crime that’s punishable by one year of imprisonment, or less.

Obstruction of Justice: Obstruction of Justice is a very broad term that simply boils down to charging an individual for knowingly lying to law enforcement in order to change to course/outcome of a case, or lying to protect another person. The charge may also be brought against the person who destroys, hides, or alters evidence.

For more about obstruction, see When Lying Becomes A Crime: Obstruction Of Justice

Offense Level: The severity level of an offense as determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that determine how much or how little prison time a federal judge may impose on a defendant who has been found guilty of committing a federal crime.

To learn more about these guidelines, go here … So, You’ve Committed a Federal Offense: How Much Time Will You Serve?

Parole: The early and conditional release from prison. Should the parolee violate those conditions, he/she could be returned to prison to complete the remainder of their sentence. Parole, however, was abolished in the federal prison system in 1984. In lieu of parole, federal inmates earn good time credits based on their behavior during incarceration. Federal inmates may earn a sentence reduction of up to 54 days per year. Good time credits are often reduced when prisoners break the rules, especially when the rules broken are serious offenses—fighting, stealing, possession of contraband such as drugs, weapons, or other prohibited material.

Federal prisoners who play nice during the course of their time behind bar typically see a substantial accumulation of good time credit and will subsequently hit the streets much sooner than those who repeatedly act like idiots.

Due to earned good time credit, federal prisoners who follow the rules are typically released after serving approximately 85% of their sentence.

* Writers, please remember this one. There is no parole in the federal system. People incarcerated in federal prison after 1984 are not eligible for parole because is does not exist. I see this all the time in works of fiction.

By the way, this regularly occurring faux pas (incorrect use of parole in novels) brings to mind the dreaded “C” word … cordite. I still see this in current books. Your characters, unless in works of historical fiction, cannot smell the odor of cordite at crime scenes because the stuff is no longer manufactured. In fact, production of cordite ended at the end of WWII. Please, please, please stop using the stuff in your books.

Please read this:

Once Again – Cordite: Putting This Garbage In The Grave!

 

Basically, a grand jury’s function is to control the start of prosecutions for felony cases. In 1215, the grand jury was established to keep a tight reign on the king, preventing the possible despotic abuse of his powers against the citizens.

Each state has its own laws, rules, and regulations regarding court systems. However, the goal and end results are the same … to provide a fair trial to the accused. For the purpose of this article, though, we’re speaking of Grand Juries in the Commonwealth of Virgina, simply because that’s familiar to me. However, the process is basically the same in the areas/states using the Grand Jury system.

In Virginia, criminal court proceeding normally begin with an arrest, usually by warrant, which is a formal, written accusation stating that the person named has committed a crime.

– Crimes are divided into two classes—misdemeanors and felonies. Typically, a misdemeanor is punishable by a sentence of up to 12 months in jail and/or a monetary fine. Felonies, the more serious of the two crime classifications, are punishable by confinement in the state penitentiary (remember, we’re only talking about state and local courts, not federal offenses).

– Offenders arrested for misdemeanor offenses are brought to trial in District Court (lower court), where he/she is tried before the district judge. There is no jury in District Court. The district judge hears the case and makes one of two decisions—not guilty, which results in dismissal of charges, or guilty, a ruling which results in imposition of sentence.

A District Court judge has no authority to try felony cases, only misdemeanors and traffic cases.

If the accused is charged with a felony offense he makes his first court appearance in the lower court where a district judge conducts a preliminary/probable cause hearing to determine whether or not enough evidence exists to try the case.

Both the prosecutor and defense present evidence during preliminary hearings. Keep in mind, though, these hearings are not trials, therefore not all evidence is presented, nor are all witnesses or experts called on to testify.

If the district/lower court judge finds that a felony has been committed, along the necessary evidence to back it up, then he/she sends the case to Circuit Court (high court) for trial. Sending a case to the higher court is called “certifying” the case (Judge I. R. Mean certified the case against Ima Crook).

– Once a case has been certified it goes to the Regular Grand Jury, whose duty is to once again determine whether or not there is probable cause to believe the person has indeed committed a felony. The defendant may or may not be released on bail while waiting for the Circuit Court trial to begin.

After a case has been certified to the Circuit Court (the high court), the prosecutor (Commonwealth’s Attorney in Va.) prepares a “bill of indictment,” which is a formal document accusing the defendant of the felony.

Prosecutors may elect to bypass the lower court entirely by bringing the case/bill of indictment straight to the Grand Jury. This step can be done in secret to avoid “tipping off” the accused. This is often done in major cases involving multiple offenders, such as drug dealers, child porn operations, etc. When the indictments are “handed down” police officers begin rounding up the accused criminals. These arrests are often carried out simultaneously in large multi-jurisdictional/agency sweeps. Again, this is done to avoid tipping off co-defendants/conspirators.

Following an indictment and subsequent arrest, the accused is arraigned—charges are formally read and the accused enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest).

Grand Jurors are selected randomly (voter registrations, DMV, etc.) by the clerk of the court and are summoned to appear by the sheriff (serving jury summons is one of the duties of a sheriff—deputies usually serve jury summons, not the actual sheriff—, but not a responsibility of a chief of police). In Virginia, Grand Jurors serve, as needed, for a term of six months (they do not meet every day, or even every month). The Grand Jury consists of 5-9 jurors.

Before the Grand Jury begin their duties the judge reads a list of instructions of their official duties and rules. This reading of instructions is called “Charging the Grand Jury.”

The Grand Jury’s purpose is to determine whether or not there is sufficient probable cause to try the accused for the crime in question. The Grand Jury does not determine guilt or innocence.

Grand Juries normally meet in a jury room, not in open court.

Once in the jury room, the members of the Grand Jury begin hearing testimony from witnesses. Witnesses are called one at a time and are questioned by the members. No attorneys and no judge. And, only witnesses for the prosecution are called before the Grand Jury. The defense is not permitted to present their case at this time.

When all testimony is heard the Jury then votes. If four or more Jury members vote yes, then it has been decided that they will issue a “true bill,” meaning enough evidence/probable cause exists to proceed with the trial. A vote of “not a true bill,” means the jury did not find an ample amount of probable cause to proceed with a trial at that particular time. However, it is rare to see a Grand Jury return a “not a true bill” finding since all witnesses are prosecution witnesses.

– Grand Jury proceedings are held in secret.

*Remember, rules and regulations governing Grand Juries vary from one state to another. Also, please remember that the above information is basic. There are, as always, exceptions.

 

You’ve all read the headlines, the super-real but often “Fake News” stories posted to Facebook and other social media. After all, if it’s posted on Facebook it’s got to be true, right? For example, here are a few headlines and stories I found this this morning …

  1. Court orders princess to stop pea-ing her bed after prince files formal complaint.
  2. The family of the Ugly Duckling successfully sued the estate of Hans Christian Anderson for the years of body-shaming endured by the abused duck.

    Ugly duckling.

  3. In a startling disclosure, The Beast announced today that he, too, identifies as a Beauty.
  4. The bodies of a local mean woman and her three ugly, lumpy, and clumsy young daughters were discovered late last night in their home. Each had a burning cinder lodged in their throat. Authorities have released a grainy surveillance photo of what appears to be a large pumpkin fleeing the scene. A police spokesperson believes the alleged pumpkin was used as a getaway vehicle. Missing from the home were two glass slippers and a fancy ball gown. There are no suspects at this time.
  5. Police have arrested 23-year-old Goldilocks (no last name). According to anonymous unnamed sources, the woman is charged with various crimes after breaking into the Bear family home on Pudding Street. A photo posted to Facebook clearly shows the sex offender in a bed with one of the bears. It is believed she used porridge in varying degrees of warmth to gain the trust of the bears, one of whom was a baby. Additional charges are pending, including destruction of property (a stool).
  6. The defendants, teens Hansel and Gretel, were sentenced to death for the brutal murder of Witch Hazel, the kind old woman who made homes for the needy from bits of leftover Halloween candy.
  7. The Three Little Pigs named to host the all-new HGTV show, Blowing Down Tiny Houses. Their first guest is a Wolf from a nearby village.
  8. Breaking News! Alice charged with trespassing in Wonderland. She’s currently in hiding, possibly behind the looking glass.
  9. The dish ran away with the spoon. The spoon’s parents called the police and the dish was charged with abduction. He was recently sentenced to hard time in Old Mother’s Cupboard.
  10. Chicken Little Now Identifies as Turkey Lurkey. Henny Penny Sues for Divorce.
  11. Three Blind Mice Pass California Driver’s License Exam.
  12. Hickory Dickory “Doc” Arrested for Over-Prescribing Oxycontin to Actors and Musicians.
  13. Georgie Porgy Kissed the Girls and Spent Six Months in Sex Rehab with Anthony Weiner.
  14. The House that Jack Built Seized by Courts After Cops Find Large Marijuana Grow Operation Inside.
  15. Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall and Was Arrested for peeping through the widow’s window .
  16. Jack and Jill Went Up a Hill. Jogger Finds Jill’s Body Two Weeks Later.
  17. Little Bo Beep Jailed as Leader of Sheep Tail Smuggling Ring.
  18. Little Jack Horner Arrested for Murder of Miss Muffett After Thumbprint Discovered on Muffet’s Tuffett.
  19. Tommy Tittle Mouse Arrested for Trespassing in Other Men’s Ditches. Will Serve 60 Days in Old Woman’s Shoe.
  20. Man in the Moon to Welcome Americans Who Left Earth After 2016 Election.
  21. Teacher Arrested for Having Sex with Mary’s Little Lamb. 22-Year-Old Educator Did Not Reply to Reporter’s Messages.
  22. 2,200 Pounds of Cocaine Discovered on Michael’s Boat as He Attempted to Row it Ashore on the Florida Keys.
  23. Italian Restaurants Ordered to Install Shields on Buffet Tables After Man Sneezes Meatball Onto Floor and Out the Door.
  24. Police Pursuit Takes Officers Over the River and Through the Woods. Ends at Grandma’s House Where They Discover Illegal Edible Marijuana Operation—Pot-Infused Puddings and Pumpkin Pies.
  25. Mary Mary Quite Contrary Burns Mouth on McMother Cupboard’s Hot Pease Porridge. Sues Fast Food Giant for 100 Million.
  26. Man Pops Weasel. Sentenced to 5 Years For Public Sex Display.

    Weasel popping

  27. Same Sex Couple Sues Baker for Refusing to Pat Their Cakes.
  28. Rub-a-Dub-Dub Three Men in a Tub Becomes Legal in North Carolina.
  29. Simon No Longer to be Called Simple Says University President. More Safe Spaces Needed. The Word “Pie” To Be Banned from Campus Conversations.
  30. Skipping Deemed Offensive on Many College Campuses. Lou Organizes Massive Protest.
  31. To Market, To Market, To Buy a Fat Size-Challegend Pig.
  32. Wee Willie Winkie Charged as Pedophile for Peeping Into Windows of Children While Wearing Nightgown.
  33. Yankee Doodle Charged with Fraud After Attempting to Pass a Feather as Macaroni.

What could children learn from Nursery Rhymes? Click here to find out.