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For criminal defendants, the right to a jury trial is found in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This right and the others enshrined in the Constitution are intended to keep the country from instituting an oppressive government.

Arizona has a similar right to a trial by jury found in Ariz. Const. Art. VI § 17. The right to a jury trial in criminal cases is recognized in felony cases in Arizona.

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However, people who are charged with certain misdemeanors carrying less than six months in jail or petty offenses do not have a right to have their cases heard by a jury.

Criminal defendants who are facing more severe charges have the right to waive their rights to trials by juries. When that occurs, their cases are heard by a judge instead of a jury of their peers.

People who are facing serious criminal charges should understand the purposes of a jury and the pros and cons of choosing a trial by jury. Getting guidance from an experienced criminal defense trial attorney is essential before making a decision about whether to waive your rights and choose a bench trial or to proceed to a trial by jury

What is the Purpose of a Jury Trial?

A jury is selected from a cross-section of the community in which the defendant is charged. Each juror is sworn in and must take an oath to decide the case based on the facts and the law.

During a trial, the jury members listen to the evidence that is presented by the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Once both sides rest, the jury meets to decide whether to find the defendant guilty or not guilty of the offenses charged.

During a jury trial, the judge determines which evidence the prosecutor and defense attorney can admit. The judge will also give instructions to the jury about the law and legal principles that the jurors must follow. If a jury returns a guilty verdict, the judge will determine the appropriate sentence.

The purpose of a jury is to have a fair trial. Jurors are supposed to be impartial. During the jury selection, or voir dire process, the attorneys and judge can ask prospective jurors questions to identify any biases. The attorneys can eliminate prospective jurors through the use of for cause or peremptory challenges. However, a jury cannot be chosen in a way that might be biased. For example, a prosecutor cannot eliminate all Black jurors in a case with a Black defendant.

What are the Pros of Choosing a Trial by Jury?

Choosing a trial by jury offers several benefits to criminal defendants. Some of the benefits are detailed below.

  1. A Jury of Your Peers

Juries are made up of a randomly selected cross-section of the people in your community. This can help to increase the objectivity of the jury’s decision-making process. Since prosecutors and defense attorneys do have limited power to remove certain jurors, a jury may also be fairer to both sides.

  1. Elimination of Bias

A jury can help to eliminate bias in criminal cases. Having a jury of multiple people to discuss and decide facts lessens the likelihood that a single person who is biased against the defendant will sway the decision.

  1. Voir Dire Increases Impartiality

During voir dire, the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense lawyer can ask prospective jurors questions that are designed to elicit information so that they can determine whether a juror can be impartial and fair. Prospective jurors can be dismissed if their answers do not indicate that they can be impartial.

  1. Minimum Number of Jurors

In federal criminal trials, the final jury must be comprised of 12 jurors. There might also be an alternate, but the jury panel of 12 jurors are the only ones involved in the decision-making process. In the Arizona criminal court system, criminal case juries in Superior Court have between eight and 12 members, depending on the severity of the case.

In courts of limited jurisdiction, criminal juries have six members. In any criminal case, the juries must reach unanimous decisions before defendants can be found guilty.

What are the Cons of a Trial by Jury?

There are also a few drawbacks of a trial by jury. Your attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons so that you can make an informed decision.

  1. Convictions Caused by Bias

While juries are designed to be fair and impartial, it is still possible for a jury to find a defendant guilty because of bias. Prosecutors sometimes try to stack juries in their favor during the jury selection process to try to obtain a finding of guilt. This makes the defense attorney’s skill during voir dire very important to prevent this from happening.

  1. High False Conviction Rates in Violent Felony Cases

In capital cases and other violent felony offenses, research has shown a high false conviction rate. Many stories of people spending years in prison only to later be cleared by DNA evidence have made national news over the past decade.

  1. Potential for a Strong Personality to Sway the Jury

In some cases, a single juror will have a strong personality and the ability to sway the jurypanel to make a particular decision. A single juror can also cause a hung jury if he or she reaches a decision that is different than the other jurors.

  1. Length of Time to Reach a Decision

Jury deliberations can take a long time when a case’s merits are under dispute. In serious cases, juries may deliberate for weeks or months before reaching decisions.

What Does a Hung Jury Mean?

In criminal trials, juries must reach unanimous decisions. This means that every member of the jury panel must agree on the finding of guilt or lack of guilt. If one juror disagrees and refuses to issue the same decision as the rest of the jury, it can be a hung jury. The criminal defendant cannot be convicted by a hung jury.

Instead, the case will be in limbo until the prosecutor decides whether to retry it or dismiss it. In severe cases, prosecutors usually choose to retry the cases at new trials. If a jury informs the judge that they are unable to reach a decision, the judge will typically give further instructions to try to facilitate a decision. However, if the jury still cannot reach a decision, the judge will declare a hung jury.

Having an Attorney is Important When Cases Go to Trial

While there are both pros and cons to jury trials, the decision to waive your right to a trial by jury is not something that you should take lightly. If you choose to waive your right, your case will be decided by a single judge. A criminal court judge may have biases against defendants gained over years of serving as a judge in criminal cases.

If you try to go to a jury trial on your own, you will be expected to know the rules of evidence and the trial procedures in the same way as the prosecutor. You will be required to know how to make objections, enter evidence and exhibits at trial, participate in jury selection, and call and question witnesses correctly.

Even if you have a legal background, trying to represent yourself can be difficult. An experienced criminal defense trial attorney at CHM Law understands the criminal trial process and can help to guide you through the trial process. To learn more, call us today at (602) 825-2500.

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