Everyone Holds an Ace Card: Juror Unanimity in a Criminal Trial Verdict

 

One of the fundamental rules of a criminal trial in Texas is that when the jurors render their verdict, it must be a unanimous decision.  Meaning, all 12 jurors in a felony trial or all 6 jurors in a misdemeanor trial must vote the same way either for a Guilty or Not Guilty decision.  The decision on what punishment a defendant is to receive upon a guilty finding is also required to be unanimous.  Unlike much of our regular everyday life or how we conduct civic elections, there is no “majority rules” aspect to a criminal trial verdict or guilt or punishment.  Every vote counts, and essentially it has to be an all-or-nothing decision by the jury.  By law, unless the jury reaches that unanimous verdict, the result is a hung jury and it is as if that trial (or punishment phase of the trial, if the jury is hung only as to punishment) never happened.  The State is free to try the case again without risking any double jeopardy complaints, and the Defendant still is considered innocent until proven guilty.

Now how exactly the jury is split in a hung jury situation may have some bearing on the ultimate outcome of the case.  Let’s say in a major felony prosecution, the jury reached a deadlock at 10 in favor of a Not Guilty verdict and 2 in favor of a Guilty verdict.  An outcome like that may prompt the State to take a second look at its case and perhaps consider proceeding on a lesser charge (if one exists and if it may be perhaps easier to prove), or prompt them to offer a better plea bargain.  Conversely, let’s say a jury was deadlocked on a misdemeanor DWI 5 votes for Guilty and one vote for Not Guilty.  The State would likely in that scenario dig its heels in and retry that same case the exact same way, feeling that perhaps that lone hold-out juror was an anomaly.

Knowing that it takes convincing each and every one of the jurors, not just a bare minimum of them, to vote for either guilt or acquittal, is of great importance when either side is contemplating taking a criminal case to a jury trial.  One must not only have “an” argument that “might” sway a person or two on the jury panel: rather a litigant must ideally have an entire logical series of arguments that will appeal to the entire panel of jurors.

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