Jurors in a criminal trial have the responsibility to decide whether an accused individual, or defendant, is guilty of the crime charged by the federal or state government. There may be many jury decisions to be made since the criminal case may have multiple defendants and multiple charged crimes. These decisions are returned to the court in the form of a verdict.
To return a verdict to the court, the jurors must first vote and agree with the decisions contained in the verdict. The jury voting requirements are major factors in determining whether a defendant will be found guilty of a charged crime. The greater the number of required jurors that are needed to agree on the verdict, the greater the chance a defendant will be found not guilty. The number of jurors required to agree on the verdict varies between the federal and state courts.
Unanimous Vote Only Required in Federal Criminal Trials
A verdict in a federal criminal case must be made by a unanimous vote. If one juror disagrees with the rest of the jurors and votes differently, a verdict can't be returned to the court. This right provides great protection to the defendant and requires the government to have to prove to each juror that the defendant committed the charged crime.
The unanimity requirement doesn't extend to state criminal courts. States have the authority to decide whether or not to require a unanimous vote to return a criminal jury verdict. However, only two states have chosen not to require juries to reach unanimous verdicts: Louisiana and Oregon. Both of these states will allow verdicts by a vote of 10 to 2.
Louisiana does require a unanimous verdict in capital criminal cases. A capital crime is one that can be punishable by death. Oregon requires a unanimous verdict in first-degree murder cases. A first-degree murder is a murder that's committed with premeditation or during the course of a serious felony.
What Does Unanimous Voting Mean?
In order for jurors to be unanimous, they must agree that the government proved each element of the charged crime. However, they don't have to always agree as to the exact facts that led to the crime. They must unanimously find that the defendant is guilty of the crime. For example, if a defendant is charged with first-degree murder, there's a unanimous verdict if half the jurors believe he committed the crime by premeditation and the other half believe he committed it as part of a felony. They all believe he's guilty of first-degree murder.
Purpose for a Unanimous Jury Voting Requirement
In order to convict a defendant, the government must prove to the jury that he committed the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt exists when a juror can't say with moral certainty that a defendant is guilty. The unanimous voting rule supports the reasonable doubt standard since every individual juror must not have any reasonable doubts. However, if a state allows verdicts without unanimous voting, a defendant can be convicted even though one or two jurors may have reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt.
Required Unanimous Jury Instruction
Jury instructions are the legal rules given by the court to the jurors by which they must follow during their deliberations. In a criminal case that requires the verdict to be unanimous, the court must instruct the jury of this requirement. Failure to provide this instruction is an improper error that may allow the defendant to have the verdict reversed on appeal.
Required Number of Jurors
Generally, a federal criminal jury is required to have 12 people. This requirement can be waived by the defendant. The 12-person jury requirement doesn't extend to the states. States may choose to have as few as six people on a jury for criminal trials. However, if the jury is small, the verdict is required to be unanimous.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I am charged in federal court with possessing cocaine, am I entitled to a unanimous verdict by a jury of 12 people? What if it's state court?
- If there's a disagreement among the jurors as to whether I am guilty of a charged crime, how long can the jury deliberations last in an attempt to have a unanimous verdict?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of waiving the 12-person jury requirement in federal court?