The right to a trial by jury for anyone accused of a crime is one of the fundamental principles of the American legal system. This important safeguard is enshrined in no lesser authority than the original US constitution, and it applies to both Federal and State law.
So, there’s no dispute. The constitution says that every US citizen accused of a crime can elect to have a trial by jury, right? Surprisingly, the answer is no. As is so often the case with law, there are exceptions to this rule.
If you’ve ever wondered about your rights when it comes to trial by jury and when you can be denied that right, read on. We’ll explain the offenses that don’t qualify, when it’s preferable to choose trial by judge, and the best defense strategies to employ in a jury-led trial.
Both State and Federal law allow for jury-led cases, but it’s important to remember that state courts handle the overwhelming majority of trials. Cases only go to the federal courts if there’s a specific federal interest.
There are two main types of jury: a trial (or petit) jury, consisting of 6 to 12 people, and a grand jury, made up of 16 to 23 individuals. Both juries are tasked with deciding on the defendant’s guilt or innocence, but they work differently and apply to specific conditions. Cases with a grand jury form a small percentage of the overall numbers.
Certain conditions must be met to request a trial by jury in a state court. Broadly, the rule only applies to serious offenses that carry a minimum punishment of six months in jail. Other exceptions include cases that involve civil law, family law, and juveniles. A unanimous verdict is required in criminal cases, although a majority verdict may be acceptable in civil trials.
The right to a trial by jury only applies to US citizens, so it can’t be used in situations like appealing a failed Green Card application, for example.
You can request a jury trial in a federal case if the charge carries a potential jail term. Federal trials involving a jury also require a unanimous verdict.
In a jury trial, it’s the jurors who decide if the accused is guilty or not. In a bench trial, where there’s no jury, it’s the judge who decides. Both bench and jury trials have their advantages and disadvantages.
Bench trials tend to be quicker and may be more suitable if a complex legal issue is involved.
Different considerations apply with a jury. Unlike a judge, jurors might be swayed by non-legal factors like a rude prosecutor, a personable defendant, the heavy-handed approach of the arresting officer, or other technically irrelevant details like whether the charge is fair and proportionate.
When the US constitution was first written, one of the main goals was to limit the powers of the central government. In many ways, a jury is the epitome of that aspiration. Defendants are judged not by a government or a judge but by their fellow citizens. That’s one of the biggest reasons why the right to a jury trial remains such a fundamental right in America.
There’s nothing to stop you from representing yourself in court, and in some cases, it may be an effective strategy. But there are risks to doing so. Here’s why:
A lawyer who has experience in similar cases or knows how a particular judge operates can make all the difference in your trial. The courts are no different from other walks of life. Experience counts.
Some prosecutors know precisely how to work a jury. If you’re not wise to the tricks of the trade, you could lose out big time. An experienced professional at your side will not only predict the tactics of the opposition, but they can also recommend effective strategies to counteract them.
This is likely the biggest danger of representing yourself. Prosecutors spend a lot of time in court and are extremely good at what they do. Unless you’re equally skilled, you run the risk of saying something you subsequently regret.
If you lose control of yourself - by lashing out or breaking down under tough questioning - it could backfire. During a trial, it’s essential to keep your cool. If you’re too emotionally attached to the issue, you might lose sight of the bigger picture.
The role of the jury is straightforward to define. Jurors must listen to all the evidence, reflect on all the facts, and then decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent (or liable or not in a civil case). The jurors, not the judge, deliver the final verdict. The judge’s role is to oversee the trial, instruct the jurors on legal rules, and decide which evidence is admissible.
If you choose to represent yourself in a trial, it may strike a chord with the jury and work out for you. But, equally, it could simply play into the hands of the prosecution. You can avoid that scenario by working with a professional lawyer. They can advise you on the best strategies to use in court, like which witnesses to call and whether or not to invoke your right to remain silent.
Courts tend to work in a set way, and upsetting the usual processes and procedures could easily lead to a negative outcome. An experienced lawyer can ensure that doesn’t happen and keep you on the right path.
The right to trial by jury remains a cornerstone of the American justice system, but it’s still only one part of a much bigger legal process. Marble’s expert team can help you see the complete picture, so call us now for a free case assessment.