In a criminal case, the defendant is
accused by the government (the plaintiff) of violating state law. Crimes are
divided into 2 categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are crimes, such
as armed robbery, murder or sexual assault, for which a person could be jailed
for two or more years if convicted. Misdemeanors are crimes resulting in a
maximum sentence of less than 2 years; examples of misdemeanors include petty
larceny, driving while intoxicated and simple assault.
The government is always represented by a lawyer, the state's
attorney, who prosecutes the charge(s) against the defendant. Some defendants
hire an attorney to act on their behalf in court while others represent
themselves. In Vermont, defendants who are unable to afford an attorney and face
severe sentences if convicted may ask the Court to assign a public defender to
represent them; if the request is approved, the state will pay some, or all, of
the attorney's fees.
The Constitution guarantees defendants the right to have a
jury determine whether they are guilty. A judge may decide the case if the
defendant gives up his/her right to a trial by jury. Regardless of who makes the
decision, the state's attorney must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the
defendant is guilty of committing the crime. Once guilt has been established,
the judge determines an appropriate punishment.
Not all criminal charges result in a trial. The judge may
dismiss a charge because there is not enough evidence to justify prosecuting the
case. A defendant may plead guilty before a trial occurs. Some charges are
dismissed by the state's attorney.