Because civil and criminal cases differ in cause and outcome, the process by which they move through the court system also differs:
How a Civil Case Moves Through the Court System
Let's imagine Mr. and Mrs. Smith were driving in their car and were hit from behind by Mr. Driver. Mr. and Mrs. Smith first meet with a lawyer to decide if they should sue Mr. Driver for damages (losses due to their injuries), such as medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Filing Suit. Mr. and Mrs. Smith sue Mr. Driver in the Superior Court in the county in which they live. The case usually takes about a year to prepare before the trial is held. During this time each side investigates their case and is allowed to obtain information from the other side.
Trial. Mr. Driver asks for a jury trial and says the accident was not his fault. At trial, six adults sit on the jury. Attorneys for both sides present their evidence to the jury. In a civil case, the attorney for the plaintiff must convince the jury that the defendant is liable by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that Mr. Driver is responsible for Mr. and Mrs. Smith's injuries.
Jury's Verdict. The judge instructs the jury to decide the facts and apply the law to those facts in reaching their decision. The jury deliberates (meets and discusses) in private until they reach either a unanimous or majority decision. The jury awards $250,000 in damages to the plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The court then issues an order, ordering the defendant, Mr. Driver, to pay Mr. and Mrs. Smith the $250,000 the jury awarded.
Appeal. If Mr. Driver and his lawyer think there was an error in the trial and that they should have won, Mr. Driver's lawyer can prepare an appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals.
How a Criminal Case Moves Through the Court System
Arrest. Let's imagine that police suspect Peter Piper has committed the crime of burglary. First, Mr. Piper would be arrested and charged with burglary. The police would then provide information of the arrest to the county Prosecutor, who may then file charges in the court of the county. [Note: Which court depends on the organization of the county. In most cases, the charges would be filed in Superior court because burglary is a felony.]
Initial Hearing. Mr. Piper would then be brought before the judge in the county where he was arrested. If Mr. Piper had not yet secured an attorney before the trial, he would be appointed a Public Defender at his initial hearing. After consulting with his attorney, Mr. Piper would then enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. The judge will then release Mr. Piper on bail, or Mr. Piper could be detained until his trial date.
Trial. Mr. Piper is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mr. Piper asks for a jury trial and is tried in Superior court. The jury listens to the evidence to determine whether Mr. Piper is guilty or not guilty of burglary. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must convince the jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning the jury is as certain as is reasonably possible that Mr. Piper committed the burglary.
Jury's Verdict. The judge instructs the jury to decide the facts and apply the law to those facts in reaching their decision, called a "verdict." If the jury finds that Mr. Piper is not guilty, then the case ends and Mr. Piper is free to go. If the jury finds that Mr. Piper is guilty, then the judge will sentence Mr. Piper. The jury deliberates (meets and discusses) privately until they reach a unanimous decision. The jury finds Mr. Piper guilty of burglary.
Sentencing and Appeal. The judge sentences Mr. Piper to ten years in prison. If Mr. Piper and his lawyer think there was an error in the trial and that Mr. Piper should not have been found guilty, Mr. Piper's lawyer can prepare an appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals. If Mr. Piper had been charged with murder and sentenced to death, or life without the possibility of parole, he could appeal directly to the Indiana Supreme Court.