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What Exactly is a Hung Jury?

Everyone has heard the term “hung jury”, but what exactly does it mean? In a criminal case in California, the jury verdict must be unanimous. All 12 jurors must agree that either the defendant is either guilty or not guilty. A hung jury happens when the jurors simply can’t reach a unanimous verdict. It doesn’t matter what the split is. It could be 6 jurors for guilty and 6 jurors for not guilty or 11 jurors for one side and only one lone “holdout” juror for the other. Sometimes the jury will come back in and inform the judge that they can’t reach a verdict and the judge will send them back to deliberate further and give them a suggestion as to how to break the deadlock, such as the people who are voting for not guilty argue the other side, and the jurors who want to acquit argue for guilty. In any case, once the judge determines that the jury is not ever going to reach a unanimous verdict a mistrial is declared.

According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, a mistrial is “a trial that has been terminated and declared void before the tribunal can hand down a decision or render a verdict. The termination of a trial prematurely nullifies the preceding proceedings as if they had not taken place. Therefore, should another trial on the same charges, with the same defendants, be ordered, that trial would start from the beginning, with the previous testimony or other findings not necessarily relevant in the new court proceedings.

I recently had a driving under the influence trial that resulted in a mistrial. In the end, the jury split was 10 jurors for guilty and 2 for not guilty. To show you how influential fellow jurors can be on each other, when the jury took their first vote, it was 9 jurors for NOT guilty and 3 for guilty. Clearly there were some very persuasive jurors in the room who argued their case with enough passion to change the minds of 7 jurors who initially thought the defendant was not guilty. This is what trial lawyers hope or fear depending on which side they happen to be on.

So what happens once a jury is deadlocked and a mistrial is declared? From a legal standpoint it’s as if the trial never took place, but from a practical view, everyone involved has at least some idea of how the next trial might go. The DA can decide to proceed and hold the defendant to answer in a whole new trial, can decide to reach an agreement for a lesser sentence with the defendant so there will be no new trial, or the case can be dismissed. Dismissal usually occurs when the DA thinks his chances of winning are so slim it’s not worth going to trial again. In unusual circumstances, the judge can dismiss the case in the interests of justice. That is what happened in the DUI case I just had. The judge, in a very unusual move, declared that no jury would ever come to a unanimous verdict and dismissed the case entirely. The defendant was free to go.