Your Right to a Jury Trial
Last week, Dylann Roof’s fate was given over to a jury in South Carolina. After two hours of deliberation, he was found guilty of what has become known as the Charleston church shooting. It was the latest step in the jury trial for a now-convicted mass murderer who, despite his assumed guilt by the general public and his own admitted guilt during the trial, was still able to exercise his most basic rights under our Constitution.
How Juries Work:
Since the early days of our country, a citizen’s right to a trial by jury has been laid out in the Bill of Rights. When a person is charged with a crime, that person is presumed innocent until proven otherwise by a jury or a judge. With respect to a jury trial, this means that everyday people in the same town or city in which the charged person lives – and in which the trial is likely to take place – will come to court to hear and decide the case. In Virginia, for criminal cases, 12 people are chosen as "fact-finders" and are tasked with determining guilt or innocence, as well as recommending a sentence if the Defendant is found guilty.
The idea of a jury keeps the legal system near the public. A courthouse can be a physically imposing structure and have an intimidating presence over the general public. Judges and lawyers have a legal knowledge that is unmatched by most, which sets them apart in people’s minds as well.
Juries, however, ground the entire legal apparatus and keep it with the folks, so to speak.
Why Defendants Avoid Juries:
Why, then, are the number of criminal jury trials decreasing? Over the last several years, articles and columns have been written about how the number of jury trials has been decreasing across the Commonwealth. There are a few reasons for this, which include cost, time, and high stakes.
The cost for a trial is high. In some cases, it can reach to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The time it takes to get to trial is also high. Depending on the court’s schedule, it can be several months before a trial can begin. Locally, the Court will usually set aside an entire day or two to hear a jury trial. For bench trials however, less time is usually needed.
Those pale in comparison, though, to the high stakes involved in a jury trial. While the presumption of innocence and burden of proof remain with a jury trial, the punishment, if convicted, can be considerably more harsh for a Defendant if the case is heard before a jury, rather than a judge. This is because in Virginia, not only does a jury determine guilty of innocence, the jury also recommends a sentence, based upon the statutory range of punishment. As mentioned earlier, judges and lawyers have a better understanding of the process and are aware of the "normal" sentence ranges as reflected in the sentencing guidelines. The jurors, however, are not privy to this information and are only left with the Code of Virginia's punishment range and jury instructions for guidance.
This is why an alternative route is often appealing to Defendants: the plea agreement. Some folks will take lesser consequences in return for admitting guilt. Once a guilty plea is entered, the right to a jury trial is eliminated. While admitting guilt is a difficult step to take, some take comfort in knowing in advance what the consequences would be for that guilty plea. If it is enticing enough, Defendants will take it.
Both the Commonwealth of Virginia (prosecutor) and the Defendant can choose a jury trial for a criminal case. However, if one party wants a bench trial and the other party wants a jury trial, the party who chooses the latter option wins. This means that even if the Defendant doesn't want a jury (based on some of the risks referenced above), the Commonwealth can still "force" a jury to hear the case.
Notwithstanding the above information, a jury trial may be a good option for a Defendant. Cases dealing with credibility of witnesses, sexual crimes, murder, and elderly Defendants are great examples of when it may be very beneficial for a jury to hear the case. Every case is different, to say the least.
If you are facing criminal charges, speak with an attorney now to decide what you should do. Make sure that your right to a jury trial is properly protected. Be informed about what a jury trial means for you and what your chances would be. If you need that information, call or e-mail today for a free consultation!
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Every legal matter is different. The outcome of each legal case depends upon many factors, including the facts of the case, and no attorney can guarantee a positive result in any particular case. The outcome of every case will depend on a variety of factors unique to each case and case results depicted here do not guarantee or predict a similar result in any future case.
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The blog posts contained on this website were written, in part, by a non-lawyer employee of Jordan B. Davies. However, each post has been carefully reviewed and edited by Jordan B. Davies to ensure legal accuracy and compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.