What is the Role of the Jury in a Criminal Defense Case?

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criminal juryThe Role of a Jury in a Criminal Case

The right to a trial by jury is guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights. It’s one of the many rights intended to protect citizens against an oppressive government and it plays an important role in our justice system. A jury trial is guaranteed to anyone 18 years or older facing potential imprisonment of six months or longer.

Function of the Jury

Of course, having a jury preside over a trial doesn’t guarantee it will be fair and impartial.

The goal of having a jury is to ensure that a fair cross-section of the defendant’s community will hear the case and make a fair and impartial ruling. Jurors are selected following the process of voir dire, which includes attorneys and the judge presiding over the case asking potential jurors questions to determine their impartiality. Attorneys are also given the opportunity to reject jurors, though they cannot attempt to build a jury that could be swayed by bias.

For instance, it would not be acceptable for attorneys to only approve male jurors in a case in which the defendant is accused of raping a female plaintiff.

Once the jury is set, the trial begins and jurors hear the evidence presented by the prosecution and the defenses against that evidence. Each juror’s job is to examine the evidence and determine if it is enough to prove the criminal charges against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt or a preponderance of evidence.

Together, the jurors discuss the evidence and their beliefs about the case and render a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

Benefits of Trial by Jury

Defendants enjoy many benefits from having a jury hear the case against them.

For instance, jurors act as a system of checks and balances to present prosecutors from abusing their power when it comes to filing charges against the defendant. When deciding whether or not to bring charges, prosecutors must take into account what jurors will conclude based on the evidence they present. It is unlikely prosecutors will invest resources in filing charges they know won’t hold up once a jury hears the evidence.

Juries also prevent judges from having too much control over the outcome of a trial. Under the best of circumstances, a single judge making a guilty or not guilty determination could be unintentionally biased. And in a worst-case scenario, judges can make decisions based on political motives or be swayed by public opinion, creating a scenario in which it would be impossible for a defendant to get a fair trial.

Being on a jury is a civic responsibility. Jurors are not there to secure re-election or impress the public, they are there to offer an impartial ruling. And should anyone believe media coverage or public opinion could interfere with the ability to be impartial, judges can choose to sequester jurors. This enables them to make their ruling based strictly on the information presented in the courtroom during the trial.

Having a jury can also result in a greater number of positive outcomes for a defendant. Even if the jurors do not come back with a verdict of not guilty, there could be a mistrial. You can learn more about mistrials and what happens after a mistrial here.

Downside of a Jury Trial

As valuable as a jury trial can be for a defendant, it doesn’t always work out in his or her favor. A defendant and his or her attorney need to discuss the pros and cons of a jury trial and determine whether it’s really the best option based on the case.

It’s important to realize that jurors are not trained in the law, and it can be challenging for them to understand complex legal concepts. Even if they do understand aspects of the law, it can be tough to apply it to real-world situations. It’s also impossible for jurors to turn off their emotions and guarantee their life experiences will not affect their decision-making, even if they make a good faith effort to be impartial.

It’s also difficult to plan for the various idiosyncrasies of bringing a group together, presenting them with information, and expecting them to pay attention to every detail and critically think through the evidence.

Essentially, a defendant is taking a risk by putting his or her fate in the hands of a jury, and they are doing the same by opting to not have a jury hear the case. It’s a gamble either way, and it’s the job of the defense attorney to explain a defendant’s options and aid that person in making the best possible decision. This is one of the many reasons that working with an experienced criminal defense attorney is so important.

If you’d like to know more about the role of the jury in a criminal case or you’ve been accused of a crime and need professional assistance building a defense, contact Gary Tabakman at (713) 331-9457.