How Does a Jury Decide Whether a Defendant Is Guilty or Not Guilty?

When a criminal case goes to trial, a jury typically decides the outcome. The jurors will consider various pieces of evidence from both the prosecution and defense before determining the verdict. Because a defendant has the right to trial by an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment, jurors must be fair when making a finding. In other words, they cannot base their decision on a preference for the State or defense. Ultimately, their findings must be based on the facts of the case and whether the State (by way of the prosecutor) proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you have been charged with a crime in Minneapolis, contact Brockton D. Hunter P.A. today.

Jury Instructions in a Criminal Case

In criminal matters where the alleged crime can be punishable by incarceration, the defendant has the right to a jury trial (Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure 26.01). The jury consists of randomly selected members of the county where the trial is being held. But these individuals don't just show up to court, start hearing evidence, and arrive at a verdict.

After the jury is impaneled and before the trial begins, the judge will give the members instructions on what to consider when making their final decision. Essentially, the jurors are instructed to follow the rules of law and consider only the evidence the prosecutor and defense present at trial. They are to disregard any other information they have come across about the case outside of the court.

More specifically, when the judge is giving preliminary instructions, they will inform the jury of the following:

  • The presumption of innocence: The judge will remind the jurors of the defendant's right to be presumed innocent. The presumption can be overcome only if the prosecutor proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In no way should the jury assume that the individual is guilty just because the defendant has been charged with a crime and is on trial. The defendant has the right to stand trial and challenge the criminal accusations.
  • The burden of proof: The judge will let the jurors know that the State has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant does not have to prove their innocence. Still, they can refute the evidence the prosecutor presents to counter the allegations made against them.
  • Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt: Mentioned numerous times throughout this blog already is the State's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge must ensure that the jurors are aware of this burden and how to know if it's been met. The judge may instruct the jury to base their findings on the facts presented in the case and what reason and common-sense dictates about the information. The jurors cannot decide that guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt based on speculation.
  • Elements of the offense: The prosecutor's job is to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for all elements of the alleged crime. The elements are outlined in the statute the defendant was accused of having violated. Most crimes are composed of the following three elements: criminal act, actor's state of mind, and causation between the conduct and the result.

For example, the following are the elements of second-degree murder under Minnesota Statutes § 609.19:

    • Death of another person (criminal act),
    • Intent to cause the other person's death (state of mind)
    • Defendant caused the other person's death (causation)

If the prosecutor proves each element beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must find the individual guilty. However, if the prosecutor fails to prove even one of the elements, the jury must find the defendant not guilty.

  • Factors the jury may consider: The judge will tell the jury that the prosecution and criminal defense attorney will present evidence, including witness testimony. The jurors must consider the weight of each side's evidence to decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. It is also the jurors' responsibility to assess the credibility of witnesses and testimony by attending to various details, such as the witness's relationship to the defendant.

The Course of a Trial

Once the jurors understand their responsibilities, the factors they must consider, and where the burden of proof lies, the trial may begin.

The trial consists of many steps, including opening statements, presentation of evidence, and closing statements by both the prosecutor and defense. The jury weighs all the information presented at each stage. Any evidence the judge strikes or deems irrelevant cannot be factored into the jurors' final decision.

The Jury Deliberation

The jury deliberation is where the jurors come together to decide on the verdict. They can review certain pieces of evidence and go over any notes they took during the trial. They may also ask for additional instructions to get clarification about specific points. However, it's up to the judge whether they are given any other information about the case or the laws to apply.

The jurors can discuss the facts with each other to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Yet, the individuals should ultimately base their decision on their own reasoning and judgment. In other words, they should not enter a guilty verdict if they believe the prosecutor's evidence was not sufficient to meet the burden of proof.

A Unanimous Decision

The verdict in a criminal case must be unanimously decided, meaning every single one of the jurors must agree with a finding of guilty or not guilty.

If even one juror disagrees with the outcome, there can be no final judgment in the case. When a finding is not unanimous, this is referred to as a hung jury. In this situation, the judge may declare a mistrial if they do not believe there is any chance of all jurors agreeing on the verdict. The prosecutor can decide whether to try the case again.

In cases where a defendant has been accused of multiple offenses, the jury need not arrive at a unanimous verdict for all charges. The court can accept partial verdicts (Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure 26.03).

Note that if the jury does make a unanimous decision, but there is doubt as to whether each juror agreed, the defendant can move to have the verdict impeached. This means that the defendant is challenging the validity of the outcome because it was arrived at improperly.

Cases without a Jury

Not all criminal matters will be heard by a jury. Some cases are presented before a judge, such as misdemeanors not punishable by incarceration or situations where the defendant waives their right to a jury trial.

Even with bench trials, similar processes are followed when determining whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The judge will hear the facts of the case from both the prosecutor and the defense. They will then decide whether the prosecutor met their burden of proof.

Fight the Allegations Against You with the Help of a Defense Attorney

Juries decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty based on whether the prosecutor proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense can raise various arguments and present several pieces of evidence to show another side of the story and cast doubt in the jurors' minds, which could lead to a favorable outcome for the defendant.

Challenging the prosecutor's assertions requires a thorough analysis of their evidence and developing a compelling counterattack. At Brockton D. Hunter P.A., we will scour the details of your case to determine an effective course of action.

For legal representation in Minneapolis, call us at (612) 979-1112 or contact us online today.