Key terms explained as Trump faces multiple criminal proceedings

Republican 2024 contender is the first former US president ever to face charges

Joe Sommerlad,Gustaf Kilander,Ariana Baio
Wednesday 10 January 2024 20:00 GMT
Donald Trump indicted for fourth time

Donald Trump appears to be on course to win the Republican nomination for president this year, at least according to the polls, but is running against a backdrop of unprecedented legal chaos that could yet derail his campaign.

The candidate, already the first president in American history to be impeached twice, also became the first to face criminal charges last April when he was indicted in New York on accusations that he had falsified his business records to conceal “hush money” payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign to stay silent about their extramarital affair a decade earlier.

He was indicted on three more occasions last year, accused of hoarding classified documents belonging to the US government in Florida and of attempting to overturn the 2020 election in two separate cases in Washington DC and Fulton County, Georgia.

The former commander-in-chief is also battling other civil lawsuits relating to his business practices and personal history and has denied all possible charges against him, arguing that, in any case, a president should be granted absolute immunity from prosecution to enable them to go about their duties and make difficult decisions in the Oval Office without fear of subsequent legal reprisals.

Mr Trump’s hard-working attorneys are meanwhile also contesting the decision by the states of Colorado and Maine to remove him from their ballot papers in agreement with Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which stipulates that anyone who was sworn an oath of office and then violated it by “engaging in insurrection” cannot run again, an explicit rebuke over his role in stoking the deadly riot at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

All of which has amounted to a blizzard of litigation and you would be entirely forgiven for feeling snowed-under by it all.

Here’s a guide to some of the legal terminology.

What is a grand jury?

In the American legal system, a grand jury is simply a group of randomly selected American citizens called upon by the federal or state laws of the United States to conduct legal proceedings, chiefly to weigh the evidence in a criminal case to determine whether there is a sufficient basis under which charges should be brought.

Unlike a trial, a unanimous verdict is not required. Typically, just 12 of a 16 to 23-strong grand jury needs to vote to indict a person for it to take place.

All proceedings surrounding grand juries are secret in accordance with Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the burden of proof for prosecution is lower than it is at a trial, with only a majority belief in “probable cause” needed to secure an indictment.

What is an indictment?

Should a grand jury conclude in favour of issuing formal charges, an indictment is then issued to the subject, which serves as formal notice that the state has reason to believe that person has committed a crime.

An indictment does not determine guilt or innocence but is a required procedural step in a criminal proceeding.

What is an arraignment?

After the state secures an indictment, it can take a case forward to an arraignment.

At an arraignment hearing, which takes place before a judge, defendants are read the charges facing them and the maximum penalties they carry and then are offered the opportunity to make a plea — either not guilty, no contest, or guilty.

If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the case most frequently moves to sentencing.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge will set the terms of bail and the dates for subsequent events in the case, including any pre-trial hearings and an eventual trial, which can sometimes occur months or years after the initial charging date.

Mr Trump was arraigned in New York in the state case on 4 April 2023, in Miami in the first federal case on 13 June, again in Washington in response to the second federal indictment on 3 August.

He and his co-defendants were expected to be arraigned on 6 September in the Georgia indictment before they entered a plea and waived their arraignments.

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