10 Things to Know About a Jury Trial in Texas after John Wiley Price
Let’s talk about the power of a jury. Specifically, juries in criminal trials here in Dallas, Fort Worth and North Texas. It seems like a very opportune time to do so.
John Wiley Price Mistrial: Jury Unable to Reach a Verdict
John Wiley Price returned to work as a Dallas County Commissioner this week as the jury in his federal criminal trial was unable to reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. This is a major event from a Texas criminal defense perspective.
Many in the courthouse hallways were assuming that Commissioner Price would be found guilty of something. Especially those working in the prosecutor’s office….
For details, check out this week’s piece by Jim Schutze in the Dallas Observer, “Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking the John Wiley Price Verdict. Wanna Bet?”
Juror Appreciation Week in Texas
Interestingly, the criminal trial of John Wiley Price ends during the same week that the State of Texas celebrates “Juror Appreciation Week.” (May 2016 was the first year this was done.)
The State Bar of Texas is encouraging everyone to use the social media hashtag “#ThankAJuror” this week to “honor the service of those who give of their time to participate in the American judicial system.”
10 Things to Consider about a Criminal Trial Jury
There are all kinds of juries, of course. There are federal juries and state juries. There are grand juries, civil juries, and of course, juries who decide the fate of the accused in criminal trials.
In Texas, for example, juries can be impaneled in district courts; constitutional county courts; statutory county courts at law; statutory probate courts; justice of the peace courts, and municipal courts. How many people comprise a jury will vary: sometimes it’s six; sometimes it’s twelve. There may be alternate jurors, just in case a juror cannot complete the case.
However, from a criminal defense perspective, it’s the power of the jury to decide the fate of the defendant that is paramount. Here are ten things to consider about a criminal trial jury here in Texas:
1. Right to Speedy and Public Trial by an Impartial Jury
Under the United States Constitution, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the presence of a jury in a criminal trial. It 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….
2. Defendant Can Waive Right to Jury Trial
The government cannot take away a jury trial if a defendant wants to have one. However, a defendant can waive his right to a jury trial. The prosecutor should agree to it.
3. Criminal Jury Trial Has Two Parts: Guilt and Sentencing
In a criminal trial, the jury must first decide whether or not the defendant is guilty of the crime for which he stands accused. Only if the jury verdict is guilty does the jury continue onto the second part of the job, which is sentencing and assessing punishment.
4. Presumption of Innocence, Burden of Proof, and Unanimous Verdict
In Texas, the prosecutor must provide sufficient evidence to the jury that the accused committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The jury must assume that the defendant is innocent (that is constitutionally mandated).
The criminal trial jury must consider all the evidence presented to them during the course of the trial, from both the prosecution and the defense, and decide if that burden of proof has been met.
It is only if the entire criminal trial jury unanimously agrees that a valid jury verdict can be rendered.
5. Instructions from the Judge to the Jury
The criminal trial jury hears evidence as well as arguments from both sides. However, the only instructions given to the jury are from the trial judge.
What the specific instructions are will depend upon the case. For an example, see the judge’s instructions to the jury during the John Wiley Price trial on the prosecutor’s delay in turning over evidence to the defense.
However, in every criminal trial, the judge will provide final instructions to the jury before the jury leaves the courtroom to begin deliberations. These are detailed in the “Charge of the Court.” The Charge is read into the record by the court reporter in open court.
The Charge will have questions the jury must answer after evaluating the evidence. They are the questions of law that the judge gives to the jury.
The jury then decides the issues of fact and applies them to these legal questions. Once every juror agrees on the answers to the questions found in the Charge, then they are ready to return to the courtroom and announced their verdict.
6. Questions from the Jury during Deliberations
During deliberations, jurors may have questions. They may want to review exhibits in the evidence, or they may want to hear testimony given on the witness stand again (a “readback”). They may want clarification of the instructions found in the Charge.
This is a big deal, procedurally, because the judge must protect the jury and its communications. When a question comes from a criminal trial jury, the judge will notify both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer that the jury has a question. The judge will suggest his or her response to that question as well as hearing the comments or objections from the lawyers on both sides. This is all done on the record, transcribed by the court reporter.
The judge decides what the answer will be after all this. The judge’s answer is then dictated into the record before it is sent back to the jurors in the jury room.
7. Communication with the Jurors
No one is allowed to talk or otherwise communicate with the individual jurors in a criminal trial. Not the defendant or his defense lawyers. Not the prosecutors. Not the judge or the court staff. Jurors are to wear identifying badges to make sure everyone knows they are serving on a jury.
If this kind of communication happens (called “ex parte communication”) then the result may be a new trial for the defendant if the defense can show the ex parte communication has resulted in prejudice to the defendant. And the prejudice is presumed to exist unless shown otherwise.
As the United States Supreme Court warns:
“Private communications, possibly prejudicial, between jurors and third persons, or witnesses, or the officer in charge, are absolutely forbidden, and invalidate the verdict, at least unless there harmlessness is made to appear.” Mattox v. United States, 146 U.S. 140, 150 (1892).
8. Jury Deadlock
Sometimes, the jurors are not able to agree on things. After some time has passed in deliberations, it may become clear to those in the jury room that the group is never going to be able to reach accord and unanimity over the questions asked in the Charge.
This is called a “deadlock.” When the jury notifies the judge that they are not able to agree, the judge must decide what to do next. After all, lots of time and money has been spent on the criminal trial. Often, the judge’s first response will be to send the jury back into the jury room to continue deliberations.
The judge may decide to give the jury an additional instruction. This is called an “Allen Charge,” as it arose in Allen v. United States, 164 U.S. 492, 501-2 (1896).
It is not to be used lightly, because of the concern that it may improperly influence the jury. An Allen Charge was given to the jury in the John Wiley Price trial.
If a criminal trial jury cannot reach a verdict, then forcing the jurors to remain in deliberations after a reasonable time has passed becomes obviously futile. The trial judge must decide if there is any likelihood that the jury can reach a unanimous verdict.
If they cannot, then the judge must declare a mistrial. Arizona v. Washington, 434 U.S. 497 (1978). The judge has no choice.
Before a mistrial is declared, the prosecution and the defense lawyers are called to the courtroom to hear the judge’s decision regarding a mistrial. The lawyers have the opportunity to put on the record whether or not they contest this decision, and if they have any alternatives to suggest before the jury is discharged.
On appeal, the trial judge’s decision to declare a mistrial and discharge a criminal jury is given great esteem by the reviewing courts. It’s a hard thing to do and it’s rarely done.
10. Double Jeopardy after a Mistrial
What happens to the constitutional protection that a defendant cannot be charged and tried more than once for a crime in this country? Double jeopardy is constitutionally protected.
In a mistrial, there is nothing to prevent the defendant from being tried again. Double jeopardy does not “attach” because no verdict was reached. Richardson v. United States, 468 U.S. 317 (1984).
If the prosecution wants to do so, it can start the process all over again. This is called a retrial. There will be new jurors and perhaps a different judge.
John Wiley Price Jury Results
In the John Wiley Price trial, the jury was not completely deadlocked. They agreed on several things.
The Price jury agreed that John Wiley Price was “not guilty” of the single count of bribery, and that he was “not guilty” of the six counts of mail fraud. (For more on mail fraud, read our earlier post.)
However, the jury was deadlocked on the tax fraud charges. It will be up to the local United States Attorney’s Office to decide if the tax fraud charges will be retried. Price is a free man on all the rest.
Comments are welcomed here and I will respond to you -- but please, no requests for personal legal advice here and nothing that's promoting your business or product. Comments are moderated and these will not be published.