The Jury and Your Criminal Case
If you plead not guilty in a criminal case, the next step is to prepare for a jury trial. In criminal cases, it is the jury, not the judge, who decides whether you are innocent or guilty. The Seventh Amendment grants the right to a jury trial, and over time, federal and state laws have interpreted this right and set detailed rules about jury trials. In other words, when you are presenting defenses in a criminal case, the jury is your audience. Here, our Miami criminal defense lawyer explains the role of the jury in federal and state criminal cases in Florida.
The Right to a Jury Trial
Pursuant to the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, all defendants in criminal cases have the right to have a jury of their peers, in other words a jury of ordinary citizens who are not judges, decide whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of the alleged crime. In federal cases, the jury must include 12 jurors.
Each state may set its own laws about jury trials in state criminal cases. In Florida, defendants in criminal cases have the right to a jury trial if the charges they are facing can carry a sentence of six months in jail or more. Therefore, it is not a given if your case is for a misdemeanor, unless it is a first-degree misdemeanor. The minimum number of jurors for a criminal case is six; only in capital felony cases do defendants who go to trial have an inalienable right to a jury of 12 jurors. In practice, there may be a jury in some cases where the maximum penalty is less than six months in jail, and there may be 12 jurors even if the case is not a capital felony.
In civil cases, the default option is to have a trial with no jury; in this case, the judge alone decides whether to rule in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant. Parties in civil cases have the right to request a jury trial, however. This matters to your criminal case, because even if you are acquitted in criminal court or if you plead no contest, you can still face a civil lawsuit in connection to the same incident. Civil lawsuits are common in cases of assault, DUI, and traffic accidents involving mistakes egregious enough to result in criminal charges. Amy, Vicky, and Andy Act of 2018, minors depicted in sexually explicit images and videos may file civil lawsuits against anyone who intentionally views the content, even if the plaintiff reached adulthood years before the defendant obtained the content.
The Quest for an Impartial Jury
An unbiased jury is one of the basic rights of defendants in criminal cases. During jury selection, prosecutors and defense lawyers may question jurors to determine whether they have prior knowledge of people and events related to the case. Except in cases that have received so much media coverage that everyone knows about them or cases involving nationally famous defendants, prior knowledge of matters related to the case is enough to disqualify a prospective juror. The lawyers may also request to disqualify a potential juror if the potential juror holds such strong views about issues related to the case that he or she would not be able to decide on a verdict based purely on the evidence presented during the trial.
Jury Unanimity and Florida Law
In federal trials, the court cannot convict a defendant unless the jurors unanimously deliver a guilty verdict. Likewise, the court cannot acquit a defendant unless the jurors unanimously deliver a not guilty verdict. The same standard applies in state criminal cases in Florida, as in most other states.
Can the Jury Return a Verdict Other Than Guilty or Not Guilty?
If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision about the defendant’s innocence or guilt, then the case ends in a mistrial. When this happens, the state can decide to drop the charges against the defendant or order a new trial. In the latter scenario, the case might resolve before the second trial happens, either because the state drops the charges or because the defendant changes his or her plea to guilty or no contest.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Attorneys
A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you if you are facing criminal charges serious enough that a plea of not guilty would require a jury trial. Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.