- 1 The role of the Magistrate
- 2 The role of witnesses
- 3 Structure of the pre-trial process
- 4 Structure of the trial process
- 5 Sanctions for contempt of court
- 6 Punishments and sentencing
- 7 Factors when determining sentence
- 8 Differences in the criminal process for religious crimes
- 9 Further Reading
The role of the Magistrate
All trials are presided over by an NPC magistrate. It is the role of the NPC magistrate to run trials in a manner which is expeditious, just, and wherever possible, provides an environment in which entertaining role-playing can occur. Magistrates will aim to conclude trials within ten minutes in most circumstances and so time given to both witnesses and the accused will be strictly controlled.
Imperial courts follow an inquisitorial (rather than adversarial) model. This means that the magistrate is responsible for investigating the facts of the case, rather than acting as an impartial referee between a prosecutor and a lawyer for the accused.
There is no prosecution or defence and the accused normally speak for themselves. If the magistrate is satisfied that the accused is unable to represent themselves adequately for some extraordinary reason then they may allow another person to speak in their stead. This does not exempt the accused from the requirement to answer any questions put to them by the magistrate.
There are no juries. Judgement is made by the presiding magistrate. Occasionally a magistrate may ask one or more of her peers to sit with her in judgement over a particularly difficult case.
The law allows magistrates to accept any evidence, including hearsay.
The minimum persons required to be present for a trial to be valid are the presiding magistrate, and at least one other person. The accused should also be present if possible, but may be tried in their absence if they abscond. Magistrates may choose to try all of those accused in connection with a particular crime or crimes at the same time. This is particularly likely where a criminal conspiracy by a group of individuals is suspected.
Where there are multiple offences which might apply to the accused the Magistrate is only required to set out the most serious charge(s). This does not prevent the accused from being found guilty of a lesser related offence. If found guilty, the punishment will also take into account any relevant lesser offences where appropriate.
Example one: The accused is charged with murder. It is possible that they might be found guilty of murder, manslaughter, assault or any other relevant lesser offence that the circumstances dictate.
Example two: The accused attacks members of the militia when they come to arrest him. They might be charged only with assault, even though this assault occurred while resisting arrest. If found guilty their punishment will take account of the fact that the assault took place against members of the militia while the criminal resisting arrest.
The role of witnesses
Most trials consist of the magistrate questioning witnesses relevant to the case. This will usually involve the investigating officer and the accused, among others. Where relevant this may include expert witnesses who are believed to possess relevant specialist knowledge. Trials are often decided purely on the basis of witness testimony.
As such, witnesses who provide false testimony are subject to harsh penalties. It is not unknown for a magistrate to impose a summary punishment upon a false witness without recourse to an additional trial. There is no requirement for witnesses to be sworn in because every citizen is always bound by their constitutional obligations. Witnesses who fail to attend a trial to which they are called run the risk of being found in contempt of court.
The accused may request the magistrate to call specific witnesses to give evidence, and may ask to question any witness themselves, but the magistrate is not required to allow it.
Structure of the pre-trial process
The accused will be presented before the court. The accused may be accompanied by a priest (if they intend to plead guilty and ask for clemency) or possibly by a friend or legal advisor.
The magistrate may choose to dismiss all the charges if they find no case to answer. Otherwise, the charges against the accused will be detailed and they will then be asked how they plead in relation to each charge: guilty or not guilty.
If the accused pleads guilty then before pronouncing punishment the magistrate will allow any priest present (or the Empress) to plead clemency on their behalf. Alternatively, if a weregild arrangement has been made with the victim then this must be approved by the magistrate. The magistrate may also investigate and consider any other pertinent evidence or testimony prior to sentencing.
When determining the accused's punishment the magistrate will take into account the seriousness of the crime and any mitigating factors presented by the priest in their plea for clemency. Further guidance on making effective clemency pleas is available here.
If the accused pleads not guilty then the magistrate will make arrangements for a trial to be held to investigate the facts of the case to determine guilt. If the accused refuses to plead then the magistrate may treat this as a guilty plea. In either case a plea for clemency will not be permitted.
If all the relevant witnesses and evidence are available then the trial may proceed summarily. Alternatively, if further investigations are required or witnesses are not currently available, the magistrate will release the accused on their oath that they will present themselves when it is time for their trial. Occasionally a magistrate will set other limitations on the accused’s behaviour while awaiting trial.
Where a magistrate has reason to believe that the accused is an absconsion risk or will not comply with their conditions they may require the payment of monies or assets to the Court in surety. These assets will be returned after the trial, provided that the accused does not abscond, breach any conditions or commit any further crimes.
If an accused absconds then the magistrate may try them in their absence. It is likely the magistrate will draw an adverse inference from the accused's failure to attend and also find them guilty of contempt of court. Any citizen can use reasonable force to apprehend them for the reward, although in practice it is often thief-takers and militia who are in the best position to do so.
Exceptionally, the magistrate may order the accused to be held in supervised custody until their trial can begin. This is only permitted where the magistrate believes the accused would be likely to commit further crimes if they were released. If so, the trial must be carried out as soon as reasonably practicable.
Structure of the trial process
The magistrate summarises the charges and then questions the accused about their version of events. The accused may be given an opportunity to make a statement.
The magistrate questions any witnesses and examines any other evidence. The accused may also be given an opportunity to question witnesses or examine the evidence.
The magistrate may give the accused a final opportunity to speak before either retiring to consider or passing judgement. The magistrate will then pronounce the sentence. Punishment is usually carried out swiftly but those sentenced to death might be allowed time to make final arrangements.
Sanctions for contempt of court
If a magistrate believes that any person is impeding the course of justice they may charge them with contempt of court and hand down a summary punishment. For example, this might be because that person is disruptive during a trial, disrespectful of the magistrate's authority, fails to attend court or fails to obey their lawful order.
If this occurs during a trial the offender will likely be fined and possibly also removed from the court. If the accused is found guilty of contempt and removed from the court the magistrate may allow someone else to represent them.
There is also a more serious charge of perverting the course of justice, most often applied when an individual fabricates evidence or bears false witness.
Punishments and sentencing
Magistrates will use their discretion to match the punishment to the crime. All punishments are potentially available to magistrates in respect of any crime.
- Fine: The most common punishment by far. The amount of the fine may vary due to multiple factors: the seriousness of the crime, previous convictions and the wealth of the accused. The magistrate may also levy additional fines to be given in compensation to the victim(s). The magistrate’s power to issue fines also includes the power to confiscate the convict’s assets, without limitation. Where the magistrate believes that the convict’s assets have been transferred to other persons in order to avoid confiscation they may take action against them for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
- Execution: The ultimate penalty. This is reserved for the most serious crimes. While there is no set method of execution laid down by the law, the interests of justice are usually served by swift and sober methods.
- Military penal service: When sentencing a convict to death the magistrate may offer the alternative of dying in the service of the empire.
- Branding: this is considered a somewhat primitive and archaic punishment by some magistrates but it is still occasionally practised.
- Magical punishments: Although rare, occasionally a magistrate may choose to legally sanction the use of magic upon a convict if that is the most appropriate course of action.
Other possible consequences of conviction
- Public denouncing of convict and potentially their group: Magistrates may use their position to denounce a convict, along with their associates. Such denouncements have no legal force of themselves but are usually used to bring matters to the attention of applicable bodies who can take action. Sometimes denouncements serve as a public warning about an individual or group. For example, a magistrate convicts a certain senator of a crime and then reports this to priests of the Synod. They formally request the Synod revoke the senator.
- Religious consequences: It is not unheard of for religious powers such as testimony or excommunication to be applied to a convict after the trial. Although a magistrate cannot directly order the use of religious powers during sentencing she can make a formal request to the Synod to do so and may be able to provide liao for this purpose.
Factors when determining sentence
What follows is a list of possible factors that a magistrate may take into account when sentencing, but it is not an exhaustive list. The factors most likely to carry the most weight are listed first but any one of the factors could, in the right circumstances, override all others.
- the harm (or potential harm) caused by the crime
- relevant previous convictions
- clemency: the persuasiveness of the plea
- the imperial interest (such as making an example of a convict to deter others, or showing mercy where it is just)
- for fines only, the wealth of the accused may be taken into account in order to avoid fines being either trivial or unjust
- the wishes of the victim or their family
Weregilds are an old Wintermark custom whereby compensation payments are made to the victim of a crime by the perpetrator. When Wintermark joined the Empire these customs were adjusted to fit into the Imperial Law. In order to benefit from a weregild arrangement the accused must ensure that agreement is reached with the victim before their trial and for this purpose mediators are often employed to negotiate with both parties to find the right weregild.
The weregild not only replaces any compensation to the victim that would otherwise have been set by the magistrate, but agreeing this settlement with the victim is also taken into account positively during sentencing in a similar way to clemency. Magistrates will refuse to take into account weregilds which are unfair to the victim. Even where the weregild is accepted, the Magistrate may still apply severe punishments if the needs of justice demand it.
Weregild arrangements are a secular alternative to pleading clemency and they are are treated as an admission of guilt by the accused.
In general, the following crimes are notable in that they will often result in the death penalty for those convicted:
- perverting the course of justice
- contravening a Declaration of Sorcery
- contravening a Declaration of Interdiction
- religious crimes involving dedication to a false virtue
Bear in mind that any crime may carry any punishment, up to and including death, if the circumstances warrant it.
Examples of sentencing policy
Most assaults are punished with a modest fine, since given the wide availability of healing there are usually no lasting consequences. On the other hand, if attempted murder is proven this is much more serious and may warrant execution.
Murder is usually punishable by death, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Consequently, those who admit their guilt and arrange for a priest to plead clemency on their behalf are much less likely to be executed. However clemency does not in any way guarantee this - please see here for further guidance on making clemency pleas in court.
Theft is usually punishable by fine. Thieves who are unable to meet fines are sometimes branded. Only where there seems to be no appropriate alternative punishment would execution be contemplated for a thief. This might be the case for a serious repeat offender who professes to have no means to pay his fine, but this is not common.
Perverting the course of justice is an extremely serious offense. Magistrates are often inclined to make examples of those convicted by sentencing them to death.
Penal military service
For the most serious crimes, a magistrate may sentence a convict to penal military service as an alternative to execution. A convict has the right to refuse, instead choosing execution. Penal military service offers a method by which the convict can attempt to redress their crimes by dying in military service for the Empire. If there is a suicide mission then it is likely that they will be sent on it, in other battles they will be placed in the most perilous positions by the commanding general. The commanding general has the power to summarily execute any of these convicts on the battlefield if they fail to follow orders, try to flee the field or attempt to carry out further crimes.
While those sentenced to penal military service are away from the battlefield they are free to go where they want and to and spend their time how they wish. However, they are usually branded in a prominent place to warn others of their crimes. Should they be caught committing further crimes it is likely that they will be summarily tried and executed by the presiding magistrate.
Occasionally, those sentenced to penal military service repay their debt to the Empire by repeated and conspicuous acts of heroism on the battlefield. The Imperial Military Council has the power to free convicts from their penal service in such circumstances.
Differences in the criminal process for religious crimes
The process for dealing with religious crimes is somewhat different than for other crimes.
Differences in the structure of the pre-trial process
In order for someone someone to be prosecuted for a religious crime they must first be condemned by one of the Virtue Assemblies.
Magistrates are often disinclined to hold suspects for long periods while waiting for the condemnation of an appropriate Assembly. If this is an issue, this process can often be expedited by going to the Assembly of Nine, the Imperial Inquisitor, or any other titled position that wields the legal power of inquisition and condemnation.
The magistrate will require an expert witness from the relevant assembly to present the basis for the condemnation and to assist them as required at trial. This is usually (but not necessarily) the priest who brought the motion of condemnation.
The accused may choose how to plead but, as the Synod have already condemned them for their crime, there are very limited grounds for them being found not guilty.
Differences in the structure of the trial process
The remit of the magistrate who tries the case is limited to the following issues.
The accused can only be found not guilty if the magistrate determines that either:
- the accused has been condemned for something that does not meet the legal definition of a religious crime. For example, simply making an unvirtuous suggestion does not necessarily meet the definition of blasphemy; or
- that the condemnation is not a bona fide exercise of the Assembly's powers, but is in fact a vexatious or malicious attack on the accused. It will be presumed that the condemnation is bona fide in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.
The magistrate will throw out the case if the expert witness does not satisfy them as to the first point.
The second point will only be considered if the accused pleads not guilty.
If the accused is convicted the magistrate is also responsible for determining an appropriate punishment in accordance with their sentencing guidelines.
As in all cases, the harm (or potential harm) caused by the crime is often the main factor in determining sentence. So for example, if the convict has promoted heretical teachings to other citizens but there is no evidence that citizens were swayed or influenced in any way, the amount of harm caused is likely to be modest.
In practice the death sentence tends to be reserved for the worst offenders only, in particular those who dedicate themselves to a false virtue, commit idolatry to a similar degree, or who continue to repeat their crimes.