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Rights of the Accused: Petit Jury

Often times people do not know that there are two types of juries - a grand jury and a petit jury. Those who do know there are two kinds of juries may be confused regarding the roles and powers of each. While jurors serving on either type of jury are chosen through the same process of random selection, each jury type differs. Not only do grand and petit juries play different roles in the criminal process, but they also play their diverse roles at different points of a criminal case. Moreover, an accused’s rights are different depending on the jury type.

Petit Juries Explained

When most people think about a jury, they are likely imagining a petit jury. This is the jury of peers that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees an individual when he or she is under trial for a criminal offense.

It is vital that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side if you are accused of a crime in Monroe Union County, and you should have legal representation well before your case ever reaches the jury trial point. This is because a skilled North Carolina criminal defense attorney can attempt to have your case dropped, or thrown out, for insufficient evidence up until the date of trial. He or she can also help negotiate a plea deal or immunity deal with the prosecution up until the date of the trial. A plea deal happens when the accused pleads guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for a reduced sentence. An immunity deal, on the other hand, is when the government offers an accused immunity from either being prosecuted for the criminal offenses or using testimony he or she provides as part of the deal in proceedings against the accused in court.

If your criminal case reaches the point at which it will proceed to trial, what this looks like depends on your type of case. In North Carolina, if you are charged with a misdemeanor you may end up with a trial in front of a judge only. If you are convicted, you may appeal to the superior trial court and receive a 12-person jury trial. In order to convict you of the charge(s), every juror must agree (i.e., unanimous) that you are guilty of the crime(s). During this second trial, the jury may not hold the lower court’s conviction against you in their decision-making process.

Felony trials also require a 12-person jury. They, too, must all agree to convict the person of the charges to result in a guilty verdict. Under North Carolina law, and the law of the majority of other states across the country, jury verdicts must be unanimous in order to convict an accused. The petit jury hears the evidence against a defendant, and can return one of the three verdicts:

  • Not guilty: A verdict of not guilty will be returned if all jurors agree the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime;
  • Guilty: A verdict of guilty will be returned if all the jurors agree that the prosecution succeeded in proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime; and
  • Hung jury: When jurors cannot reach a unanimous verdict, the jury is referred to as “hung” and the result is a mistrial. When this occurs, the prosecution can recharge and retry the defendant for the same crime should they wish to do so.
The Allen Charge and Hung Petit Juries

Sometimes both judges and prosecutors go to great lengths to avoid a hung jury. They may pressure “hold-out” jurors who will not agree with the majority into changing their vote. This is especially true in cases with drawn-out jury deliberations. Several states across the nation, including North Carolina, allow prosecutors to give what is known as an “Allen Charge” to a deadlocked jury and ask them to continue deliberating. In short, an Allen Charge is a reminder to the jury that the financial and emotional costs that trial places on both sides in a case. This charge encourages hold-out jurors to vote with the majority in an effort to avoid a mistrial.

Advocates for the accused often criticize the Allen Charge, finding it to be an overly persuasive tool for the prosecution that allows them to strong-arm jurors into guilty verdicts. This pressure to return a verdict - often times a guilty verdict - is used in a justice system that is already slanted for the prosecution. In fact, there is no legal requirement that a jury reach a verdict. Moreover, a hung jury does not mean the jurors failed. A hung jury is a function of our nation’s justice system and occurs when jurors disagree on whether there is sufficient evidence to convict an accused of a particular crime. A hung jury may also occur if one juror privately exercises his or her right to nullify and vote not guilty because he or she disagrees with the charges on a moral level. Nonetheless, the Fourth Circuit -- North Carolina’s federal circuit court -- ruled that Allen Charges remain permissible under the law.

Jury Selection

Potential jurors on a petit jury can be excluded with or without cause. During the jury selection process, known as voir dire, both the defense and prosecutors are given a limited number of peremptory challenges of jurors. These can be used to exclude a potential juror without reason or explanation. The other side, however, may challenge the exclusion if he or she can prove it was used to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, or ethnicity. Voir dire allows both sides exclude jurors that they believe will be prejudicial to their side of the case.

In a jury trial before a petit jury, the accused has several rights that are not afforded at a grand jury. This includes the right to an attorney, to present evidence, to hear the evidence being presented against him or her, and to exculpatory evidence by the prosecution.

Criminal Defense Help

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges in Monroe Union County, having an experienced and skilled criminal defense attorney can make the difference between maintaining your freedom or being sentenced to jail time. The attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC have years of experience in defending individuals in the Marvin Ridge area who are accused of both state and federal crimes. Contact us today for a free consultation.