Law and legal television programs and movies have long been a favorite with American viewers. From shows like Law and Order to blockbuster hits like Double Jeopardy, legal jargon has been a long-standing staple in entertainment—often at the confusion of viewers. Here’s a list and explanation of our top 3 legal terms in popular TV and movies to help you understand the actors like a pro.
Murder v. Manslaughter
Many television shows and movies centered around the legal system tend to focus on sensational crimes; most often, murder and/or homicide. Common terms associated with these programs are “murder” and “manslaughter,” but few viewers know the difference between the two.
In New Hampshire, the terms “murder” and “manslaughter” both fall under RSA Chapter 630, relating to homicides. However, the major difference between the two is malice aforethought, i.e. the act of planning the homicide. Under New Hampshire law, murder is committed when an individual purposefully or knowingly causes the death of another. See RSA 630:1. In contrast, manslaughter is committed when an individual causes the death of another based on passion in the moment (i.e. under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance caused by extreme provocation) or by reckless means. See RSA 630:2.
In terms of punishment, murder is punishable by much harsher sentences due to the planning and intent factor contributing to the homicide. For example, under New Hampshire law, capital murder is punishable by the death penalty. See RSA 630:1. On the other hand, manslaughter is punishable by lengthy prison sentences, although such sentence may not exceed more than thirty (30) years. See RSA 630:2.
Television shows and movies in the genre of law and punishment often involve mention of a defendant and/or an appellant. But when is each term appropriately used?
Generally, the term “defendant” applies to the party against whom an action has been filed. This party may be an individual, a corporation, an entity, or a group of individuals and/or entities. The term “defendant” may be used in all tribunals, from lower level courts (like district or circuit courts) through the Supreme Court.
An “appellant” is a distinct term from “defendant,” and is generally only applicable at an appeal tribunal (for example, at the Superior Court in matters where the Superior Court has appeal jurisdiction). An appellant is any party to a lawsuit who is appealing the decision of a lower court to the higher appeal tribunal. While an appellant in the television and movie context is generally a former defendant appealing a conviction to an appeals court, an appellant can also apply to a former plaintiff appealing a lower court’s decision in favor of the former defendant.
A subpoena is, in essence, a court mandate that may be invoked in an active legal matter. Generally, subpoenas can be used for two distinct purposes: 1.) to gather information, and 2.) to obtain testimony. A subpoena may be used to require one party to a lawsuit to reveal evidence, documents, or other information, like recordings, to the opposing party. Similarly, a subpoena may also be used in certain situations to require an individual, corporation, or entity to appear as a witness in a trial, or before certain government committees and/or bodies.
Because subpoenas are court mandated, they must be complied with. Penalties for failure to comply with a subpoena may trigger court punishments, including being held in contempt of court. See, e.g., New Hampshire Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 17 (f).
Now that you’re armed with these explanations, you’ll be just like the pros in deciphering exactly what your favorite law shows and movies are saying. Is there a particular legal term not on this list that you’d like us to explain? Feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org, and you could see that term—explained—in an upcoming article!