When Does a Criminal Defendant Have a Right to Trial by Jury?

September 3, 2022 Criminal Defense

A trial by jury is one of the most commonly known criminal constitutional rights. This right has been repeated in school, on television, in movies, and through the criminal justice system. While the right to a jury trial is sacred, it is not definite, and not guaranteed to every single criminal defendant.

We will cover the Constitutional protections on jury trials, a defendant’s right to choose, some examples of juror’s misconduct, as well as when and why opting out of this right can be a good strategy.

Trial by Jury – a Constitutional Protection

The right to a trial by jury is contained both in the federal and state constitutions. Federally, the right to a jury trial is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

But the right to a jury trial is not only included at the federal level. Florida’s Constitution and Legislative action both grant citizens of our state this right. Article I, Section 22 of Florida’s Constitution states: “The right of trial by jury shall be secure to all and remain inviolate. The qualifications and the number of jurors, not fewer than six, shall be fixed by law.” While Florida’s Constitution grants a mostly blank right to trial by jury, our legislation created laws to better articulate and enact this right.

 Florida Statute Section 918.0157 provides a criminal defendant with the right to a trial by jury. It states: “In each prosecution for a violation of a state law or a municipal or county ordinance punishable by imprisonment, the defendant shall have, upon demand, the right to a trial by an impartial jury in the county where the offense was committed, except as to any such prosecution for a violation punishable for a term of imprisonment of 6 months or less…”

Do I Have to Have a Jury Trial?

No. The choice to have a jury or bench trial is usually in the hands of the criminal defendant. As a right, the exercise of it is up to the one who holds it. When a

criminal defendant is charged with a crime, the judge or magistrate must inform the defendant of their rights, including the right to a jury trial. When a criminal defendant is charged with a felony offense, the court will assume that the accused would like a jury trial unless the defense attorney informs the judge or magistrate that the defendant would like to waive their right to a jury trial. In order to waive this right, the defendant generally appears in front of the judge or magistrate so that the judge is assured the defendant is waiving their right knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently. 

Why Would I Waive My Right to a Jury Trial?

There can be various reasons why a criminal defendant could waive their right to a jury. Commonly, the right to a jury trial is waived by a defendant after their attorney has come to a favorable guilty plea on the defendant’s behalf. Since there will be no trial, the defendant would waive their right to a jury trial and will plead guilty in order to accept the plea bargain.

Another reason why some defendants waive their right to a jury trial is that they might prefer for a judge to be the deciding voice. This is usually done as a strategic decision after a lot of discussion between the criminal defendant and the defense attorney.

Jury Selection

Jury selection, also referred to as “voir dire”, refers to the process the state and defense attorneys undergo in choosing the jury that will reach a verdict in a criminal case. During this process, the prosecutor and defense attorney both question the prospective jurors on whether there might be any issues regarding their ability to decide the case impartially, fairly, and consistently with the accused’s due process rights. In Florida, capital cases require a jury of 12 members. For all other cases, the jury will be made up of 6 individuals.

How Does a Jury Decide the Case?

The jury is meant to be the judicial factfinder. The members are meant to hear witnesses and see the evidence presented to them during the criminal trial and make determinations about the weight and credibility that should be given to that evidence or those witnesses.

At the end of the presentation of evidence from both sides, the jury deliberates, or discusses whether they think the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charges. Once they reach a verdict, they come back, and the verdict is announced to the defendant. Verdicts in Florida must be unanimous, so the prosecutor must convince every single member of the jury that the criminal defendant is guilty of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt.

Juror Misconduct

When someone feels that they have been wrongfully convicted, one option that can be available is to investigate the jury for juror misconduct. Though rare, misconduct can occur when instructions are disobeyed, lies are told, and precautions are not followed. In such cases, those wrongdoings can affect the verdict and its reliability.

In 2019, juror misconduct shocked both the legal teams present, but also fellow jurors. During the trial against Carlton Nebergall, a retired Florida deputy accused of the murder of his son-in-law, one juror violated an important court rule. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen noticed that one member of the jury panel had been holding his cell phone when he was instructed to not have it out. This misconduct came at nearly the conclusion of the trial, disappointing certain members of the legal teams present who felt that all the time spent during the trial was now a waste, as defense counsel requested a mistrial. The juror was also caught sleeping during witness testimony previously during proceedings. The defense attorney requested at that time that he be released, stating “I have watched this juror fall asleep at least three times… I have a very, very big concern that he has missed some pieces of testimony. So I’d ask he be released.” Instead, the juror was given a warning. The defense team states that they plan to file a motion to implore the judge to analyze the juror’s misconduct.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

It is imperative that criminal defendants are aware of their unalienable rights. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Florida, focus on retaining an experienced and qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorneyDon Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have the experience and passion to ensure that all rights are upheld and protected during the criminal process. Call us today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your case during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Gabi D’Esposito

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