MOUNT VERNON — In an age of popular “procedural” television police dramas, real-life attorneys sometimes have to deal with what they call the “CSI Effect.”
“Crime Scene Investigation” and other pop culture shows show every case hinging on a crucial scrap of physical evidence or an emotional confession. The reality of the U.S. legal system is something altogether different. But when courtroom drama does unfold, in Ohio it is often in a Common Pleas Court.
“We sometimes have jurors who assume that scientific tests will take away the need for them to make a decision,” Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher said. “There’s a perception that they always need to see scientific evidence. But we had trials long before we had DNA, and a lot of verdicts come down to common sense. Trials just aren’t as exciting as they are on television.”
Common Pleas Courts trace their roots to the 12th century and King Henry II, who established a court to rule on legal disputes among English commoners. There are probably more differences than similarities between medieval English and modern American law, but Henry’s terminology lives on in Ohio’s 88 counties and their Common Pleas Courts, where a wide range of criminal and civil issues are adjudicated. In Knox County, Common Pleas Judge Otho Eyster sits on the bench for all criminal trials where the grand jury has handed down felony indictments. Misdemeanor cases countywide, meanwhile, are tried in Judge Paul Spurgeon’s Mount Vernon Municipal Court.
The County Prosecutor’s Office pursues about 200 felony criminal cases a year from six law enforcement agencies: the Highway Patrol, Sheriff’s Office, Children Services, and the Danville, Fredericktown and Mount Vernon Police Departments. Examples of felonies include homicide, rape, robbery, burglary and sex crimes. In most instances, if the prosecutor agrees that felony charges are appropriate, the case goes directly to a grand jury. That jury’s sole purpose is to review felony charges and return either an indictment or a “no bill” decision on each count.
If the grand jury decides that the charges are probably correct by a preponderance of evidence — a much lower legal test than “beyond a reasonable doubt” — they indict. If not, they return a no-bill decision, in which case the charges will probably be dropped or amended.
One of the essential protections afforded American citizens by the U.S. Constitution is the right to a trial by jury.
In an age of popular “procedural” television police dramas, real-life attorneys sometimes have to deal with what they call the “CSI Effect.”
Mount Vernon Municipal Court is tucked away on the third floor at 5 N. Gay St., an address it shares with, among others, the police department and city law director.
Editor’s Note: This is a series of stories detailing the jury process including grand jury, Common Pleas Court and Municipal Court.