Rights of the Accused in California
The accused in a criminal prosecution in the state of California has a right to have his or her case heard, and decided, by a jury of peers.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that, “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.”
Similarly, Article 1, Section 16 of the California Constitution states, “Trial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all, but in a civil cause three-fourths of the jury may render a verdict. A jury may be waived in a criminal cause by the consent of both parties expressed in open court by the defendant and the defendant’s counsel.”
Alternatives to a Jury Trial
While no one can take away your constitutional rights, you can waive your rights.
As an individual accused of a crime, you might waive your right to a jury trial because you reached an agreement with the prosecutor and are entering into a plea agreement. You might also waive your right to a jury trial because you elected to have a trial by judge instead.
Jury Selection (Voir Dire) and Juror Questioning
You have a right to a jury of your “peers” which in practice means a pool of prospective jurors summoned to appear for jury duty whose names were randomly pulled from voter registration records and motor vehicle registrations.
The Judge explains the case to prospective jurors reporting for jury duty as well as the associated duties and responsibilities. The Judge provides names of parties involved in the case. Jurors are then questioned by the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The Judge may also question prospective jurors. The purpose of juror questioning is to determine if a prospective juror has a bias. Juror questioning is also used to decide if parties want the individual to be part of the final jury. Prospective jurors may be “challenged” and be removed from the prospective jury pool for almost any reason:
- Challenges for cause – A challenge “for cause” requires a reason such as the prospective juror knows a party to the case outside of the courtroom.
- Peremptory challenges – As peremptory challenges do not require a reason, they are used to keep someone off the jury for a reason that does not qualify as a “for cause” reason. Each side is entitled to 10 peremptory challenges in a criminal jury trial. Each side is entitled to 20 peremptory challenges if the case involves the death penalty or life in prison. After all peremptory challenges are used by both sides, the remaining 12 people (plus alternates) make up the final jury.
Trial and Deliberation
The burden is on the state to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At the start of the trial, opening statements are made by both sides. Next, witnesses testify and evidence is introduced. The defense is not required to present any evidence, but usually does. The defendant and his or her attorney decide whether the defendant will testify at trial. Closing statements are made by both sides. The Judge then instructs jurors on what they are to do next and what the rules are regarding deliberation.
The jurors are sent to a separate room to deliberate. They will elect a foreperson, discuss and deliberate the case, and must reach a unanimous verdict. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, this situation is referred to as a “hung jury” and the case must be re-tried.
Advantages and Disadvantages to a Jury Trial
There is a certain degree of risk with a jury trial because it is impossible to know who will be on the jury. The jurors could relate well to you or could be unable to relate.
Consult with a reputable California criminal defense attorney before making a decision regarding your jury trial options. Your attorney should be able to evaluate the facts of your case and provide insight into a typical jury in the area.