After a tragic event in which a family member’s life is lost, nothing can undo what happened. But it’s important to know the legal system is there to hold the responsible party accountable and ensure justice is served. If criminal charges are brought in your family’s case after losing a loved one to wrongful death, here’s who is involved and what you can expect.
1. The Victim and Family Members
Victims and their families have the right to seek justice after a tragic accident. However, this is usually done through the civil justice system, which allows victims (or surviving family members of the victim) to claim compensation for their damages.
In a criminal case, victims don’t have the power to bring charges against the responsible party—but that doesn’t mean they don’t play a critical role in the process and outcome of the case. They can provide vital evidence and support for the prosecution.
2. The Prosecutor’s Office
Depending on the state in which you live, chief prosecutors may be called district attorneys or state attorneys. They may be elected or appointed by the governor and serve a term in that position.
However, in all states, this office assigns a lawyer to every case and has its own team of investigators and advocates for victim’s rights. These are the people you will most likely work with during the case.
What Is the Prosecutor’s Role?
The prosecutor represents the state, county, city, or other government entity that brought the charges against the defendant in the case. Whether the crime was a misdemeanor or felony, the prosecutor appears in court on behalf of the government and the people—not the victim as an individual. Their task is to prove the case under criminal laws.
3. The Defense
The defendant is the person being accused of the crime and possibly facing jail time. As part of our justice system, defendants have the right to have a defense lawyer represent them regardless of financial status. Defendants can choose to work with their appointed public defender or hire a private criminal defense attorney. The defendant, along with legal representation, make up “the defense” in a criminal case.
What Is the Defense Attorney’s Role?
The defense attorney is the counterpart to the prosecutor in a criminal case. This person will act on the behalf of the accused party, including:
- Making court appearances
- Entering pleas
- Representing the accused during plea negotiations
- Filing motions to suppress evidence or throw out charges
- Arguing the case before the judge and jury (if necessary)
It can be difficult for a victim’s family to understand why a lawyer would represent the person thought to be responsible for your loved one’s death. However, it’s important to remember that defense attorneys are doing their job and have a responsibility to protect their clients. The prosecutor will do the same on behalf of the people.
4. The Judge
Judges play an integral role in the justice system. In almost all states, they are required to be lawyers who have studied law and understand the legal process. Whether they are elected or appointed, they do not represent any party involved in the case. Their role is to:
- Ensure the law is applied fairly in every case
- Decide if evidence meets the required standard to be considered
- Preside over the legal proceeding
The judge is not there to help the victim, the prosecution, or the defense in a criminal case. Rather, the judge’s job is to apply the law and make sure the case follows legal procedure in a way that is fair to both sides.
5. The Jury
Not all criminal cases are decided by a jury. There could be a trial by judge. However, according to the laws in the United States, any person accused of a crime has the right to request a trial by jury. Why? That fact is that most people feel they would have a better chance with a jury of their peers for several reasons:
- They think judges may be hardened by their experience and be too harsh
- They believe some jurors may mistrust the system and be more sympathetic
- A jury involves convincing several people rather than just one in a trial by judge
During a trial by jury, the jurors will listen to the lawyers present evidence, question witnesses, and make their cases for their clients. Then, they will collectively decide if the charge has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt for a guilty verdict. Also, the jury’s verdict must be unanimous.
How Is a Wrongful Death Case Different From a Criminal Case?
Wrongful death cases take place in civil court, which is very different from criminal court. There could be both a wrongful death case and a criminal case happening at the same time but the goal of each case is different.
The Goal of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
A wrongful death claim is a civil case and involves tort law. The surviving family members or the estate of the victim file the lawsuit to claim compensation for their losses. It is meant to provide a legal way to recover damages that resulted from the death, including non-economic damages such as:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of companionship
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of counsel
Also, the burden of proof in a civil case is not as high as in a criminal case. In a civil claim, the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, the person filing the lawsuit has to prove their claim against the defendant is more likely to be true than not true in order to win their case.
The Goal of a Criminal Lawsuit
On the other hand, a criminal suit involves the government filing charges against a person or party for violating the law. The penalties are meant to punish the defendant for their actions rather than provide monetary compensation to the victim’s family. Depending on the crime, the penalties often include prison time.
The burden of proof is much higher in a criminal case. It falls on the prosecution to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. That means the prosecution must prove every element of the crime, including the act of committing the crime and the defendant’s intent.
Bringing a Wrongful Death Case
After losing a loved one, it’s important to know that you can bring a civil wrongful death claim regardless of whether there is a criminal case or not. Even if the criminal case is lost, your wrongful death claim can still be successful because the cases are separate and the burden of proof is lower.
Attorney Kyle Bachus and his Elite Litigation Group are experienced wrongful death attorneys ready to help your family get through this difficult time. Contact the Elite Litigation Group to learn more.
For more advice on pursuing action through the civil justice system, you can find Unthinkable on Amazon.
A founding partner of the law firm Bachus & Schanker, Kyle Bachus limits his practice to representing individuals and families in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases nationwide. For more information, visit KyleBachus.com.