If your criminal case is going to trial, chances are it will be a jury trial in Texas and not a bench trial. To be tried by a jury of your peers is a right established by the U.S. Constitution. It is an important right that requires the prosecutor to persuade jurors (up to twelve) that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a right that allows the defense attorney to persuade the jury that the prosecutor has not established the proper burden of proof. Generally, it is better to have a jury of 12 members of the community judge you than one person (the judge) who likely knows the law inside and out. That said, a jury trial has its issues, and knowing what they are can help you and your criminal defense case.
Criminal Cases and Jury Trials in Texas
During a jury trial, a group of people (jurors) hear the evidence and legal arguments, decide the facts of the case, and determine whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty.
Unlike bench trials, the judge is not involved in determining the verdict in a jury trial. Their role is to oversee the proceedings to ensure the procedures are appropriately followed and the rules are properly applied to legal issues.
The right to a trial by a jury is protected by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which 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.
This right, however, is not absolute -- there are limits to it. Jury trials are only available for “serious” offenses where the potential penalty is more than six months imprisonment. Further, there is no cumulative effect. So, if you have five petty offense charges against you, and each one, if convicted, would result in less than six months in jail but, if combined, could result in more than six months in jail -- you still do not have a right to a jury trial. Most petty offenses are either settled outside of court or heard by a judge who determines the outcome.
Jury Member Selection (Voir Dire)
The jury of a jury trial is the most significant aspect of the trial. A jury is chosen from a pool of randomly selected people in the community (thus, a jury of your peers). Choosing jury members is a process called voir dire. During voir dire, the judge, prosecution, and defense ask potential jurors questions to assess their suitability to hear a case.
A judge can excuse jurors who are not legally qualified to serve on a jury or if doing so would cause undue hardship for them. For example, a potential juror who is the sole caregiver for a sick family member can be excused. A judge can also excuse a potential juror with an actual or implied bias and that bias could prevent the juror from performing their role impartially.
The prosecution and defense can ask for certain jurors to be removed by making “for cause” and peremptory challenges.
Challenge for Cause
Either the prosecution or defense can challenge a juror for cause if there is a legal basis for why a juror cannot serve. For example, the juror may have revealed certain biases or prejudices during initial questioning.
When a side makes a challenge for cause, they must give the reason for it. The parties are usually allowed an unlimited number of challenges for cause.
The prosecution and defense can also make a limited number of peremptory challenges to exclude a juror without providing a reason. However, a party cannot make a peremptory challenge based on race, ethnicity, or sex. If it appears this has occurred, the opposing side can object to the challenge.
Challenges are heard and decided by the judge during a process called “striking the jury.”
Once the prosecution and defense have exhausted their challenges or both sides are happy with the jury, the jury is sworn in.
Strategic Use of Voir Dire
The jury selection process is an important step in preparing your defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney at h knows what questions to ask potential jurors to gauge who may be more sympathetic to your circumstances. They can also assess and seek to exclude any biased jurors to ensure you receive a fair trial.
Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
In a criminal case in Texas, the prosecution must prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, if a jury is convinced that there is no other reasonable explanation that can be drawn from the evidence presented to them during the trial, they must find the defendant guilty.
Pros and Cons of a Jury Trial in Texas
Sometimes, you may question whether a jury trial is best or not. Bench trials have their advantages, but they also have many disadvantages. For someone facing a more serious offense, jury trials offer your best hope for an acquittal. Still, knowing the pros and cons of a jury trial can go a long way in helping you understand the overall process and what it means in your unique criminal case.
Pros of Jury Trials
The advantages of a jury trial are many. For starters, your criminal defense lawyer will have a hand in selecting jurors, and that matters significantly because it allows them some control over who decides your fate.
Further, though judges know the law, jurors know life. After listening to a defendant's story, they may show more compassion than a judge might show. Using arguments that personally appeal to jurors may make it easier to persuade them that you are innocent or are worthy of a second chance. A smart defense attorney will use language that raises this sentiment and creates empathy.
In jury trials, there is also the benefit of the number of people determining your guilt. Remember, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and all it takes in a jury trial is one juror finding you innocent -- that may be enough for a hung jury. In other words, the jurors must be unanimous when deciding your guilt, and odds increase when you have 12 people (in a jury trial) versus one (in a bench trial).
Plus, in a jury trial, the case could get dismissed before the jury ever gets a chance to deliberate. If the evidence is insufficient, your Texas criminal defense attorney could file a motion to dismiss. If the judge agrees that there is not enough evidence to convict you, the case could be dismissed.
One other advantage worth noting here is this: a jury trial provides more opportunities to appeal a bad verdict. Jurors are people, and they can act poorly. If there is any evidence of juror misconduct, that could be grounds for a criminal appeal.
Cons of Jury Trials
Many disadvantages exist in a jury trial, too, and the first one that comes to mind is related to an advantage, and that is: people have emotions. So, on the one hand, if a prosecutor is successful, they can persuade jurors to their side based on emotions. Likewise, a prosecutor can do it, and this is especially true when the crime in question is a violent or heinous one. It can be hard sometimes to stick solely to the facts when a person has been killed or suffered great harm, allegedly at the hands of the defendant. Everyone wants someone to pay, and that may be enough. Only a skilled defense attorney can highlight errors and gaps in the prosecutor's defense to clearly indicate reasonable doubt.
Along the same lines, jurors can be unpredictable. You may think your criminal defense is solid. You may think the evidence is clearly insufficient. Jurors, however, can be misled just as must as they can misperceive or misunderstand the facts or evidence of a case. Further, they may not fully understand what the burden of proof is or how to adhere to the judge's instructions during deliberations. These things can make it hard to predict how a jury might decide a case.
It is important to consider these and other factors when deciding how to proceed in your criminal case. You will have the right, in most instances, to waive a jury trial. Sometimes, you may need the judge's and prosecutor's approval, but waiving this right is an option. Discussing all the factors and possible outcomes with your attorney can help you identify what might be the right course of action for you.