We strive to explain the criminal process in a way that makes sense to the average person so our prospective clients know what to expect as they navigate the justice system. One aspect of the system that commonly confuses people is the concept of hung juries. While most people know that a jury must reach a unanimous decision, what happens when they become deadlocked and fail to do so is less understood. Here’s what you should know about hung juries in California.
What is the Definition of a Hung Jury?
A hung jury occurs when jurors cannot reach a consensus. While some states do not require jurors to make a unanimous decision in criminal trials, California does, and all twelve jurors must agree on whether to convict or acquit a defendant.
Additionally, California is one of the only states that requires jurors to unanimously agree on whether the death penalty should be implemented. If they cannot reach a decision, the judge can declare a mistrial for the penalty phase of a trial only and then retry only the sentencing portion of the case.
Is a Hung Jury the Same as a Mistrial?
No, there are many differences between a hung jury vs. a mistrial. A hung jury refers only to situations where the jurors cannot agree on a defendant’s guilt. On the other hand, a mistrial is when a trial is rendered invalid based on many factors. While a hung jury can provide grounds for a mistrial, there are many other reasons a mistrial may be declared, including the death of a judge, prosecutorial misconduct, or juror misconduct.
What Happens After a Hung Jury?
When a jury first comes back deadlocked, the judge will typically use an Allen charge, telling them to continue to deliberate and see if they can come to an agreement. If they cannot reach a consensus after multiple attempts, the judge will eventually declare a mistrial due to a hung jury, which means the defendant has been neither convicted nor acquitted. Three things can happen at this point:
- The judge can dismiss the case if they feel there is insufficient evidence, something vitally wrong with the case, or if it has resulted in multiple hung juries
- The defense and prosecution can work together to negotiate a plea bargain
- The prosecution can choose to retry the case
Though many people believe retrying the case violates the double jeopardy clause of the United States Constitution, the fact that there was no verdict means that the mistrial is considered to have not happened. Anything that happened in the previous trial is irrelevant to the subsequent trial. After seeing the prosecution in action, the defense usually has an advantage in retrials because they have seen the prosecution in action and can build a new strategy based on that information.
This knowledge and the fact that the prosecution’s case is too shaky to result in a conviction the first time around also make it easier for the defense lawyer to negotiate a plea bargain that will benefit their client.
Is a Mistrial by Hung Jury Good for the Defendant?
By nature, no one wins in these situations. The prosecution could not secure a conviction, and the defense could not get the defendant cleared of the accusations. The defendant also has to deal with the stress of waiting even longer to find out the ultimate outcome of their case.
In some ways though, a hung jury can benefit a criminal defendant. One major benefit is that a judge will typically poll the jury when they cannot come to an agreement to find out how many were in favor of an innocent or guilty verdict. If the jury was largely in favor of acquittal, this can give the criminal defense attorney leverage to negotiate a better plea bargain. On the other hand, if most jurors favored a conviction, it lets the defendant and his criminal lawyer know that they may be best off settling the case in a plea deal rather than continuing their strategy of fighting the charges.
If you have any questions about the justice system or have been charged with a crime, please contact criminal defense attorney Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050.