When a person has been selected to serve on a jury for a criminal trial, he or she is given a significant responsibility: they will have to decide whether or not the defendant is guilty of a crime. The jurors must be objective rather than subjective, and must only consider evidence and testimony that has been presented during the trial. Unbiased thinking is essential to a fair trial, and should be implemented throughout the entire process — from the initial selection to final deliberations.
A Defendant’s Right to a Trial By Jury
Federal and state governments guarantee the right to a trial by jury for any defendant charged with a crime. However, this right is typically only applicable when serious crimes are involved, such as homicide or anything that is punishable by more than six months in prison. A defendant can waive his or her right to a trial and instead be tried solely by the judge.
Questioning Juror Candidates
When the jurors are being selected, it is up to the court to ensure each one is impartial. Those who are chosen will be questioned by the court and by an attorney on both sides. This process is known as “voir dire.”
During the voir dire process, lawyers may find various reasons to excuse a juror candidate. When a Decatur lawyer wishes this, he or she must use one of two challenges:
Peremptory challenges – This challenge is a request to dismiss a potential juror without noting a reason. An attorney can use it when they have a “gut feeling” about the candidate, or for another unstated reason. In general, a lawyer will be limited in the number of peremptory challenges they have in a criminal trial.
Challenges for cause – This is a request to dismiss a candidate based upon a specific reason. Usually this revolves around a potential or actual bias. Examples might include:
- Connection to law enforcement
- Being a victim in a similar case
- Being exposed to negative publicity before the trial
- Accidental exposure to the defendant while in custody
In the event of a prospective candidate being found biased in any way, a new juror will be chosen to replace them. This prospect will be required to go through the same questioning.
Duties of a Juror
Once a the 12-person jury has been chosen, the lawyers of both sides will present their evidence. A juror will be responsible for paying close attention to all the evidence presented, but without making a decision on whether or not the defendant is guilty. A juror should also:
- Avoid investigating the case on their own.
- Discuss the case with other people.
- Stay away from situations that could be influential.
- Avoid reading tabloids and other media.
After the lawyers on both sides have presented the evidence, the jury will be required to deliberate the case behind closed doors. It is during this time that they will decide the outcome of the case. Jurors are encouraged to discuss their opinions along with evidence that supports them. Even though it is likely for differences of opinion to exist, jurors should be ready and willing to listen to one another. Once this is complete, the jurors will hold a vote to determine whether or not they agree on specific matters of the case. If they reach a decision, they are considered to have come to a verdict. This will be returned to the court and announced to all parties therein. A unanimous vote is required for a federal defendant to be found guilty or not guilty. State criminal courts do not require the same rule.
If a jury cannot agree on a verdict, the court can declare a mistrial. This means the trial was inconclusive and ends without a verdict. It is possible for the government to charge the defendant again, for the same crime, in the future. This means he or she could be retried for the same charges.