What if the jury can’t reach a unanimous verdict?
When the jury in a criminal trial cannot reach a unanimous verdict, this situation is often referred to as a “hung jury.” It is considered a type of mistrial, which refers to any trial that cannot be completed. The legal implications and procedures following a hung jury can vary depending on the jurisdiction. In the context of New Hampshire law, the following discussion explores what happens when a jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict in a criminal case.
The Constitutional Requirement for a Unanimous Jury
In New Hampshire, as in every state, criminal trials require the jury to reach a unanimous decision to either convict or acquit the defendant. This requirement is rooted in the principle of ensuring that the jury’s decision reflects a complete and thorough agreement among its members, signifying a high level of certainty in the verdict. While New Hampshire has required unanimous juries in criminal cases since time immemorial, some states up until recently have allowed a conviction without a completely unanimous verdict. For example, in the case of Ramos v. Louisiana, the defendant was convicted of murder by a jury vote of 10-2. In a 2020 decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this non-unanimous verdict was unconstitutional, and reversed the conviction. This means that going forward all states must follow the unanimity requirement.
When a jury cannot reach such a unanimous decision, it is declared a hung jury. This typically occurs when the jurors are deeply divided in their opinions and are unable to resolve these differences through further deliberation.
Legal Procedures Following a Hung Jury
Once a jury is declared hung, the judge has the discretion to ask the jurors if additional time or further instructions might help them reach a verdict. In fact, the judge may forcefully instruct the jury that they should work hard to reach a unanimous verdict. This is controversially known as the “dynamite instruction” because some lawyers believe it can have an intimidating impact on the jury. However, if after that dynamite instruction it becomes evident that additional deliberations will not change the situation, the judge will declare a mistrial due to the hung jury.
A mistrial signifies that the trial has been terminated without a verdict. It is important to note that a mistrial does not equate to an acquittal or a conviction. Instead, it is a recognition that the particular trial could not conclude with a definitive outcome.
Options for the Prosecution
After a mistrial is declared, the prosecution must decide whether to retry the case. This decision is influenced by several factors, including the strength of the evidence, the specifics of the case, and the reasons behind the jury’s inability to reach a verdict. In New Hampshire, there are no legal limits on the number of times a defendant can be retried after a hung jury, although practical and ethical considerations often play a significant role in the decision-making process.
After a hung jury, many judges will poll the jury to find out how close the vote was and which direction it was leaning. This can be helpful for the prosecution in deciding whether to bring the case back for another trial. However, the judge is not required to do this and it is completely discretionary.
The prosecution can sometimes also have a sense about which way the jury was leaning based on any questions the jury may have posed to the judge during the deliberations, any statements made in open court when asked by the judge how close the jury was, and the jury’s body language.
If the prosecution decides to retry the case, the defendant will face a new trial with a different jury. This process starts anew, with jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence, and deliberations.
Rights of the Defendant
The defendant’s rights continue to be protected after a hung jury. The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which prevents an individual from being tried twice for the same offense, does not apply in the case of a mistrial due to a hung jury. This is because there was no final verdict in the initial trial.
However, the defendant retains the right to a fair trial, which includes the right to effective legal representation, the right to confront witnesses, and the protection against self-incrimination.
Challenges and Considerations
The occurrence of a hung jury brings several challenges and considerations. For the defendant, the prospect of facing another trial can be stressful and financially burdensome. For the prosecution, the decision to retry a case must balance the interests of justice with the efficient use of resources and the potential impact on victims and witnesses.
Moreover, a hung jury often leads to questions about the clarity of the law, the persuasiveness of the evidence, and the effectiveness of the attorneys’ arguments. These factors are typically scrutinized to determine if changes are needed in a subsequent trial.
A hung jury in New Hampshire’s criminal justice system presents a unique set of legal and procedural challenges. It necessitates careful consideration by the judge, prosecution, and defense regarding the next steps. While a hung jury may initially seem like a setback in the pursuit of justice, it is a vital aspect of the legal system that upholds the principle of unanimous consensus in criminal convictions. It reflects the system’s commitment to ensuring that verdicts are reached only when there is absolute certainty among the jury members. This process, while sometimes lengthy and complex, is fundamental to maintaining the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system in New Hampshire and across the United States.
If you find yourself facing a criminal trial, it’s important that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your team. We can help you navigate the justice system and do our best to reach a favorable verdict and avoid a hung jury so you can put the past behind you. Contact us for a free consultation today.