A hung jury happens when a trial ends without the jury reaching a unanimous verdict.
This occurs when the 12 jurors cannot agree on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty after they have seen all the evidence in the trial and deliberated fully on the charges.
If even one juror disagrees, the judge will declare a mistrial, and the jury is considered “hung.”
There are a few common reasons why a jury might become deadlocked and unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
Often, individual jurors interpret the evidence and testimony differently. Some jurors might be wholly convinced of the defendant’s guilt based on the evidence, while others have enough doubt that they cannot vote to convict.
Disagreements during deliberations and jurors being unable to sway each other can lead to a hung jury. Sometimes, jurors get confused by complex legal instructions from the judge and are unsure how to apply the law.
Personality conflicts or personal biases among jurors can also cause deliberations to derail.
In some cases, the legal or factual issues in the trial are so complicated that coming to a unanimous verdict proves impossible for the jury.
The judge will declare a mistrial if the jury reports they are deadlocked and cannot reach a verdict.
This ends the trial without a verdict being issued.
However, it does not mean the legal process is over. Since no acquittal or conviction exists, the prosecution can put the defendant through a new trial with a fresh jury panel.
The defendant remains legally “innocent until proven guilty” and will await their new trial in jail or out on bail.
Criminal defense lawyers typically see a hung jury as favorable for the defendant since the prosecution did not get a guilty verdict.
To understand hung juries, it helps to look at famous historical examples.
1927, Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti were tried for armed robbery and murder.
Their first trial ended with a hung jury, as the jurors could not agree.
But in a second trial, they were convicted and sentenced to death.
More recently, in 1997, British au pair Louise Woodward was charged with killing an infant in her care.
Her first trial ended with a hung jury before she was convicted of second-degree murder.
However, the judge reduced her conviction to manslaughter.
And in 1911, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were tried after a deadly fire.
The first trial produced a hung jury, but the second trial found them innocent.
Part of the reason hung juries occur is because reaching a unanimous decision requires patience and teamwork among the 12 jurors.
When some jurors favor conviction, and others favor acquittal, the deliberation process can be frustrating and emotional.
Jurors may need to compromise or explain their reasoning to each other in detail to reach a consensus.
With a juror pool reflecting a diverse community, differences of opinion and perspective are to be expected during deliberations.
But a willingness to communicate openly and somewhat is crucial in avoiding a hung jury.
While not common, hung juries can and do happen when agreement proves impossible among jurors.
Famous hung jury trials help shed light on why they happen and how they impact the legal process.
There are several contributing factors, but preventing hung juries comes down to the diligence, attentiveness, and cooperation of the 12 people tasked with deciding a defendant’s guilt or innocence.
All states in the U.S. require a unanimous decision for criminal trials. A Supreme Court ruling confirmed this in April 2020.
It can depend on the specifics of the case. Still, generally, a hung jury is often seen as a temporary victory for the defense since it shows that the prosecution could not convince all the jurors of the defendant’s guilt.
While the exact rate can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the cases, hung juries are relatively rare, occurring in an estimated 2-10% of cases.
A juror cannot change their mind once a verdict has been reached and declared in court. However, if a juror expresses doubts before the verdict is officially recorded, the judge may ask the jury to continue deliberating.
If a juror refuses to deliberate, it could lead to a hung jury. In such cases, the judge may choose to replace the juror with an alternate, or if there’s evidence of juror misconduct, it may lead to a mistrial.
Deliberation lengths can vary widely. Some juries may reach a verdict in hours, while others can take several weeks. The longest on record, as of my knowledge cutoff in 2021, is a 1992 California murder case that lasted 4.5 months.
A defendant cannot appeal after a hung jury because there has been no final verdict or judgment from which to appeal. However, they may be able to appeal procedural issues if the case is retried and results in a conviction.
No, a hung jury does not prevent the defendant from being retried. The prosecution can decide to retry the case with a new jury.
As long as a juror participates in deliberations and bases their decision on the evidence presented, they cannot be held in contempt for voting their conscience, even if it leads to a hung jury.
Hung Jury: A jury that cannot reach a unanimous decision, thus resulting in a mistrial. The jury is “hung” because they are deadlocked and cannot resolve their differences.
Jury: A group of people sworn in to render a verdict based on the evidence presented in a legal case.
Unanimous Decision: A decision or verdict where all jurors agree.
Mistrial: A trial rendered invalid due to an error in the proceedings or because the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision. The trial must often be restarted with a new jury in such cases.
Deadlock: A situation where progress cannot be made, mainly because the jury cannot agree on a verdict.
Verdict: The formal decision or finding made by a jury on the matters or questions submitted during a trial.
Deliberation: The process by which a jury discusses and considers the evidence presented during a trial to reach a verdict.
Retrial: A new trial occurs because the previous trial was inconclusive or had some significant error. This can happen after a hung jury.
Prosecutor: The lawyer representing the state or federal government in a criminal case.
Defense Attorney: The lawyer who represents the defendant in a legal case.
Defendant: The person or entity accused in a legal case.
Judge: The official presides over a court of law, ruling on legal matters and guiding the jury’s deliberation process.
Jury Instructions: Directions given by the judge to the jury about the laws of the case.
Here is a reminder of some of our other helpful resources related to criminal defense in Nevada:
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Here are some resources related to hung juries, the jury deliberation process, and famous trials that ended in a hung jury:
The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies’ Research on Hung Juries: This research paper provides empirical data on the frequency and causes of hung juries.
Justia’s Blog Post on the Role of Jury Deliberations: This blog post discusses the importance of the deliberation process and what can lead to a hung jury.
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