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Eighteenth-Century Legal Terms

ATTORNEY GENERAL Chief legal officer of the colony and of the General Court. In criminal cases, he served the role of prosecutor.
BAR Physical barrier separating official and public spaces within the courtroom. (Origin of the term "pass the bar," indicating the transition from layperson to lawyer.)
BYSTANDERS Spectators in the courtroom. They were required to stand to show their respect for the justices and the court proceedings.
CONTRACT A written agreement between two or more people to do something.
COUNCILORS Appointed for life to serve as advisors to the Governor. These 12 men served as justices on the General Court.
DEFENDANT A person who is accused or sued.
DOCKET The list of cases and other business scheduled to come before the court during a session.
ENGLISH COMMON LAW The unwritten law of the central courts in London; a body of law and procedures guaranteeing the security of person and property.
FELONY A major crime punishable by death.
GAOL British spelling of jail--holding area for criminal suspects until their trials; rarely used to punish convicted criminals.
GENERAL COURT The supreme judicial court in Virginia. Besides civil cases, it heard criminal felony cases involving "any person who is free."
GOVERNOR Presided over the General Court. He could pardon all criminals except those convicted of treason or willful murder.
INDICTMENT A formal written accusation charging a person with a crime.
INFANT A free person under the age of twenty-one; a minor.
INQUEST An official inquiry or examination.
JURY A group of men summoned to assist the court by making a factual determination of guilt or innocence. (Any man who met the qualifications for voting could sit on a jury.)
GRAND JURY A group of twenty-four men summoned twice a year to inquire into reported crimes and return indictments of suspected individuals to be tried by the court.
PETIT JURY A group of twelve men summoned to determine factual matters before the court.
OYER and TERMINER A special court convened to "hear and end" criminal cases.
OYEZ Hear ye! Attention! Usually cried out three times by a court official to command silence.
PERJURY The willful telling of a lie while under lawful oath to tell the truth.
PILLORY A public punishment device consisting of a wooden board with holes for the head and hands, in which convicted offenders were locked and to which their ears were sometimes nailed.
PLAINTIFF A person who brings a suit in court.
STATUTE A law passed by a legislative body and set forth in a formal document.
STOCKS A device of public detention and punishment consisting of a heavy wooden frame with holes for a convicted offender's feet.
VERDICT A formal decision or judgment.
WITNESS A person who has knowledge of a fact and makes it known to the court.
WRIT A written order of the court directing a court official to carry out an action.



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