Anyone accused of a criminal offense in the United States has a number of important rights that are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. One of the most important of those rights is 6th Amendment right to a trial by a jury of your peers. One of the most important decisions you will have to make if you are the defendant in a criminal prosecution is whether you wish to take your case to trial and if so, whether you want a judge or a jury to decide the issue of guilt at that trial. Of course, you should never make such an important decision without first consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney; however, it also helps to learn as much as possible about how a jury trial works if you are contemplating the resolution of your case by jury trial yourself. In an effort to help you learn more about jury trials, a Murfreesboro criminal defense lawyer answers the five most common jury trial questions.
- Under what circumstances is a trial by jury an option? Amazingly, the rights originally enumerated in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” remain both clear and relevant over 200 years later. Our right to a jury trial can be found in the 6th Amendment which states, in pertinent part: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…” Consequently, if you are accused of a criminal offense you have a right to have your case heard by a jury. In many jurisdictions, however, you must proactively assert your right to a jury trial by requesting one for minor offenses while a jury trial is presumed when a case involves more serious offenses.
- How are the prospective jurors chosen? In most states, including Tennessee, prospective jurors are randomly selected from registered voters and/or driver license records. A sizable group is summoned to the courthouse on the day of trial and then the process of Voir Dire begins. Voir Dire is when both the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney (as well as the judge sometimes) ask prospective jurors questions in an attempt to weed out anyone who has a legal reason why they cannot serve on the jury. In addition, each side can exclude some people without the need to provide a reason, as long as it does not amount to discrimination.
- Do I get any input into who makes it onto the final jury? Absolutely! Voir Dire is your chance to help shape your final jury. You can help by offering questions you want your attorney to ask and by listening carefully to the answers. Body language can also tell you much about a prospective juror. For example, do they appear to refuse to make eye contact with you? If so, probably not a good choice for your team.
- What happens when the jury leaves to deliberate? At the end of the trial, the judge will read a set of jury instructions to the jury members after which they will leave the courtroom to deliberate. Evidence admitted during the course of the trial may go with them or they can ask to see it again if necessary. They will discuss the trial until ready to take a vote. To convict, the vote for “guilty” must be unanimous. If all jurors do not agree that the defendant is guilty, the verdict must come back as “not guilty” or in some cases as a “hung jury.” A hung jury is one in which, despite the best efforts of all jurors, a unanimous decison could not be reached.
- Why would I waive my right to a jury trial in favor of a trial by judge? This is a strategic decision that should only be made with the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. In general though, there are several common reasons why a defendant would prefer to have a judge decide the issue of guilt. One reason is when there really is no reasonable likelihood of getting a jury of your peers. Another is when your defense strategy relies on a technicality or a difficult legal concept. Juries can be unpredictable and, despite being told not to, can ignore the actual law in favor of an emotional vote. In addition, jurors are average people who often do not have the ability to understand a complicated legal defense that a judge will understand and may be compelled to follow if the legal argument is sound.
Contact a Murfreesboro Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you have additional questions or concerns about a jury trial in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Contact the team at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.