During a criminal trial, the fate of the accused individual, or defendant, is in the hands of the jury. Jurors deliberate and determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charged crime. These deliberations occur in the jury room after all the evidence is presented at trial.
Since the jurors have a great responsibility, they must remain impartial and free of bias. They can only take into account the evidence presented at trial and not any other outside evidence.
Before Jury Deliberations
Both the prosecutor and the defendant must be allowed to present evidence to support their positions in the case. After all the evidence is presented, both sides may give a closing argument. This is where they summarize the case and give their viewpoint.
After the closing arguments, the court will give the jury instructions. These are the legal rules that the jury must follow in deciding the issues of the case. The jury will then retire to the jury room to begin deliberations.
What Happens in the Jury Room?
Unlike most aspects of a criminal trial that are open for everyone to see, jury deliberations are secret. There are no exact procedures that jurors must follow during these deliberations. The jury is free to deliberate in any manner that it sees fit.
Usually one of the first matters that the jury deals with is electing a presiding juror, or foreperson. This individual encourages discussion and tries to focus the discussion on the evidence and law. She will also be in charge of organizing any voting during the deliberations.
Although there are no set rules for deliberations, there are certain actions that jurors can take that will help the process run smoothly. Some examples include:
- Let everyone have a chance to speak
- Respect all opinions and viewpoints
- Review and follow the jury instructions
- Examine all the evidence
- Discuss each crime one at a time
All jurors have the duty to deliberate. A juror can't improperly make up his mind prior to the beginning of jury deliberations and refuse to engage in deliberations with the other jurors.
Voting in the Jury Room
In order to reach a verdict, jurors need to vote on the major issues of the criminal trial. The federal government and most states require a unanimous vote to convict a defendant. There's no exact best time the jury has to take a vote during the deliberations.
Although jurors can take a vote as soon as they enter the jury room, it's usually best to first hear all the jurors' viewpoints and review the evidence and the law. The jurors can take a vote in any manner they want, including written ballots and raising their hands.
If the jurors take a while to agree on a verdict, the court may choose to have them sequestered. This means that they're secluded from any outside contact so that they won't be influenced during deliberations. Most juries aren't sequestered and are allowed to go home at night.
Unable to Reach a Verdict
If a jury can't agree on a verdict, it may result in a mistrial. This means that the trial is terminated without a verdict. The court has the discretion to grant a mistrial. It may also issue a supplemental jury instruction to encourage the jury to reach a verdict.
Returning a Verdict
In order to return a verdict to the court, the jury must vote and agree to the decisions contained in the verdict. It's very important to make sure the verdict is accurate. The decisions contained in the verdict will decide whether the defendant will be found guilty or not guilty of a crime.
To make sure that the verdict is accurate, the defendant or the prosecutor may request the court to poll the jury. Polling the jury means to ask each juror separately to confirm the verdict that was returned to the court.
Impeachment of a Verdict
If a court finds that the jury was affected by improper influences, it may impeach the verdict. Impeachment means that the verdict can't be trusted and is set aside. However, not every influence will be enough to impeach.
Intrinsic influences aren't usually enough to impeach the verdict. These influences arise out of the contact between the jurors. Extraneous influences may cause the impeachment of the verdict. These influences are from outside sources.
If the court determines that there was an extraneous influence, such as exposure to inadmissible evidence, it must decide whether the information was in fact prejudicial. If it was, the court must determine what effect the prejudicial information had upon the affected jurors. The court can set aside the verdict and order a new trial if the verdict can't be trusted because of the prejudicial information.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I am on trial for a crime, am I entitled to have the jurors sequestered to prevent them from being influenced by negative publicity?
- If I am convicted of a crime, can I have the verdict against me impeached on the basis that there was a lot of prejudicial coverage about me in the newspapers?
- If I am a juror in a criminal trial, may I use the knowledge I gained from my personal life to help determine the guilt of the defendant? May I try to convince other jurors that disagree with me why I believe he's guilty based on my personal experiences?