Your Constitutional Right to Trial
The jury trial process, by Criminal Jury Trial Attorney Thomas Gallagher
Every person accused of a crime has the right to a jury trial. But a trial is not only for the benefit of the accused. Of the many steps in the criminal court process, the jury trial process is the most important. Rule 26 of the Minnesota Court Rules of Criminal Procedure provides guidelines for jury trials. But in the end, the quality of justice depends upon you and me.
Do we as a society have an interest in fair trial procedures? We all suffer when a jury convicts a person of a crime they did not commit. And when a jury convicts the wrong person, the perpetrator of the crime will not be found.
The criminal jury trial attorney is the key to enforcement of all the other legal protections for the accused.
A fair trial or a show trial?
A trial could be as fair as possible. Or, a trial could have precious little fairness about it. To call a court proceeding a “trial” means nothing at all. To conduct a fair, trustworthy, reliable trial requires effort, and is worth the effort.
In a fair trial, the court focuses upon a fair process. It ignores the effect choices increasing fairness may have on the outcome.
The right of the accused to present his or her chosen defense is basic and fundamental to a fair trial. Sometimes a prosecutor or a judge prevents a defendant from presenting their defense or their evidence. When that happens a trial becomes a sham, a show, and an obstruction of justice.
The defendant’s criminal jury trial attorney must be a strong advocate, even if that angers some.
Garbage in, garbage out
The right to a jury trial means that the jury has a right to all the relevant evidence constitutionally obtained. This must include evidence viewed as relevant and material from the perspective of the defense.
If a prosecutor or judge edits out, censors or gags the defense evidence, there is no real jury trial. It becomes just a sham show trial. When the court silences the voice of the accused; when the jury hears only guilty evidence, the trial is unfair and unreliable.
The jury trial attorney for the defense must ensure that defense evidence gets to the jury. He ensures that the court honors our Constitutional right to present a defense.
The fact-finding step
The trial is the search for the truth step in the court process. In a jury trial, the jury is the finder-of-fact. In a court trial to a judge only, the judge is the fact-finder. The fact-finder considers the both side’s evidence and decides what they think really happened. The fact-finding function precedes the application of the law to the facts. The jury does that as well.
The lawyers outline the trial with the judge
Jury trials begin with the lawyers discussing the trial evidence, motions in limine, with the judge. They discuss an outline of the trial evidence, along with witness and scheduling issues. Jury trials usually last for days or weeks.
Jury selection follows. The defense lawyer and the prosecutor talk to the potential jury members with the judge observing. We call this voir dire.
The jury trial attorney may challenge a potential juror “for cause” (meaning for a reason). If so, the judge will decide whether to excuse that potential juror or not.
After that process the lawyers may exercise their assigned number of peremptory challenges (no reason required, normally). A lawyer’s peremptory challenge may be subject to objection by the opposing attorney on constitutional grounds. For example, the lawyer may object when he suspects the peremptory challenge was based on race.
After the jury swears its oath, the prosecuting attorney makes an Opening Statement to the jury. The defense lawyer may follow with an Opening Statement. Or he may reserve it for after the close of the prosecution evidence.
Next the prosecuting lawyer presents their evidence. The prosecutor must attempt to meet her burden of production, or prima facie case. If she does, then the prosecution case will survive a defense motion for acquittal. And the prosecuting attorney hopes to meet their burden of persuading the jury of guilt beyond doubt.
The defense case is optional
After the prosecution case, the defense will present its evidence if it chooses to present a defense case. The defense jury trial attorney sometimes will not, since the burden of proof lays squarely upon the prosecuting attorney. Each case is different.
Closing arguments to the jury by both lawyers follow. Most consider the prosecution and defense final arguments the most interesting part of the trial.
The judge gives the jury instructions
After the judge instructs the jury on the law, the jury and bailiff will be sworn. Then the jury will deliberate.
During deliberation, the jury is in control. They can take as much time as they need. If the jury is unable to agree on a unanimous verdict, eventually the judge will declare a mistrial. If the jury reaches a verdict, we all reconvene in the courtroom for the verdict.
Some of the judges jury instructions can be misleading. When a judge instructs jurors to “follow the law,” that instruction is often incomplete. They should include the law that the jury has the power to return a not-guilty verdict where the it believes that the law is wrong, even if the defendant did intentionally do the prohibited act.
We call the power jury nullification. It’s the power of the jury to veto unjust laws. Juries have had this power since the beginning of the United States. In fact, we can trace it back to the birth of democracy in Classical Athens. Another related term is the power of jury lenity.
A real jury trial is a cornerstone of real democracy.
If the verdict is not-guilty, the court releases the defendant. If the verdict is guilty, the judge may order the defendant taken into custody or may order that the conditions of pretrial release continue until the sentencing hearing.
Who has a right to a jury trial?
In Minnesota, the right to a jury trial depends upon the offense level of the charge. Any criminal charge (felony, gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor) triggers your right to a jury. But you don’t have the right to a jury on a petty misdemeanor charge since jail is not possible.
An accused person may waive or give up her right to a jury trial. If she does, she can choose a trial to a judge. The trial procedure is similar, but without the steps for jury selection and deliberation.
How many jurors do the lawyers select in a jury trial?
In a misdemeanor case, the accused has the right to a jury of six.
There is no jury at all in a petty misdemeanor trial.
Do all jurors have to agree for a verdict?
Yes. A verdict in a Minnesota criminal case must be unanimous, whether guilty or not-guilty. The judge will ask the jury to deliberate until it reaches a verdict. The judge declares a mistrial if it cannot reach a verdict; is deadlocked. We call this a hung jury.
Your criminal defense attorney
You have the right to a lawyer at trial. Though an accused person has the right to represent themselves without a lawyer, that is not a good idea. Even lawyers hire other lawyer to represent them in court.
Conducting a jury trial is an art requiring hard work and skill. You should hire a criminal jury trial attorney with the skills and a proven history. A good criminal defense lawyer understands and can explain the jury trial process. He works hard and smart for his client.
Will my case go to trial?
Every criminal case goes to trial unless resolved before trial. A case can settle by agreement or a judge or prosecutor can dismiss the charges after defense efforts.
Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer Thomas Gallagher advises his clients that the priority should be the outcome, not the effort or process required to get there.
It should not matter whether the defense outcome comes from a plea agreement, from a judge’s Order after a Contested Omnibus Hearing, or a not-guilty verdict.
Fear of the unknown is natural. But remember that the jury trial right belongs to the defendant. It is a strong protection for the defense against an unfair prosecution.
And Attorney Gallagher can explain and prepare his client for trial. An experienced jury trial attorney, Gallagher can help you know what was once the unknown. In fact, he’s already begun.
Question about a jury trial or the criminal court process in Minnesota? Call Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer Thomas Gallagher at 612 333-1500.