Under California law, defendants in a criminal case have the legal right to have their case heard in a jury trial.
Juries are normally a group of twelve regular people of the public along with several alternates who are given the responsibility of being fact finders in criminal cases.
Then, they are required to make a group decision on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the crimes for they are charged with.
Jury trials are a critical part of the criminal case process and afforded to defendants charged with misdemeanor or felony crimes.
Many defendants, after consultation with their criminal defense lawyer, decide to waive their right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial, which means only the judge will hear and decide the case.
A bench trial is often preferred, but will always depends on the nature of the criminal charges and facts of the case. However, most defendants will decide to be heard in a jury trial if the case is not resolved.
Readers should note that the vast majority of criminal cases never reach the trial stage as they are settled through negotiations and a plea bargain with the prosecutor.
For more information, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing a review below.
Who is Selected to a Jury?
There are many important features of a jury trial that are designed to safeguard the rights of a defendant charged in a criminal case.
First, the members on the jury must represent an accurate reflection of the local community.
However, while the members on a jury won’t ever be exactly proportionate to the demographics of the community related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc., there can’t be any intentional attempts to make a criminal jury unrepresentative.
The most common example of this is striking jurors of a certain race or gender because there is an assumption that a juror of a different race or gender are more likely to be favorable to one party or the other.
A jury that is representative of the defendant can ensure the accused is afforded a fair jury of their peers that is guaranteed by the United States constitution.
What are the Steps of a California Criminal Jury Trial?
The typical California jury trial starts by selecting a jury. Once the trial begins, there are the opening statements that give jurors an overview of what is expected to be proven.
Most opening statements are fairy brief, but can get quite detailed. The prosecutor is the first to give their opening statements, then followed by the defendant’s criminal defense lawyer. Here is a brief review of the following steps:
- Introducing evidence,
- Expert testimony,
- Closing arguments,
- Jury deliberations,
- Jury trial verdict,
- Sentencing hearing.
If the defendant is convicted of any charges in a California criminal court, a sentencing hearing will be scheduled.
This hearing is an opportunity for both the prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer to present arguments to the judge that are related to the actual sentence for their crime.
The criminal defense attorney presents mitigating factors on behalf of the defendant, while the prosecutor will present aggravating factors.
After the judge hears the arguments, they are responsible for deciding a specific sentence that is legally permitted.
Jury Selection Takes Longer Due to the Coronavirus
I just recently finished a jury trial in one of the California courthouses. The trial took a little bit longer than normal to finish because picking the jurors is a more time-consuming process.
In this particular courtroom, only 18 jurors could fit in the courtroom at a time, where usually you can probably fit anywhere from 50 to 70 jurors in a particular courtroom.
But because of the Coronavirus and spacing out considerations, the judge had to bring in the jurors 18 at a time and they were basically brought in every hour or so in panels of 18 and we went through each of the panels.
We had approximately five to six panels. We were permitted to ask questions of each of the prospective jurors which is called “voir dire” and we were also permitted to use our pre-emptory challenges, any challenges for cause. Ultimately:
- it took us about three days to pick a jury;
- normally, I would say that would take a day and a half.
So, that was certainly one impact of the Coronavirus.
Also, when asking questions, the attorneys had to wear masks. Fortunately, in closing argument, the judge allowed us to take our masks off because it’s very hard to talk for a long period of time with a mask on, especially when you’re arguing to a jury.
Witnesses Wearing Mask
The testimony was pretty similar as what happens in normal jury trials across California, except that the witness was given the option to take the mask off while they testified.
In fact, I made the argument that the jury should be able to see the witness’s face, see their expressions when they’re asked questions by both the prosecution and defense.
So, the judge said the best that he was going to do is say that they could take the mask off and the main witnesses ended up doing that.
So, that was very helpful to the defense because he was caught in a number of lies.
The Most Significant Change is “Time”
So, I would say, for the most part, the biggest change in jury trials in Los Angeles and across the state of California is time:
- it takes longer to pick the jury; and
- it takes a bit longer to do the trial.
But beyond that, everything is pretty much the same as far as substance goes.
I also noticed that jurors who actually showed up for jury duty were more serious, not complaining and trying to get out of jury duty as usually happens.
I think the jurors that typically do that just simply didn’t show up and were feeling they would be safe because of the pandemic and not getting issued a subpoena to show up in court.
The jury trial process is the primary protection of a criminal defendant’s right to liberty. No, the system is not perfect in California, but it still means the government has the burden of proof.
Our experienced team of criminal defense attorneys have litigated hundreds of cases through jury trials with excellent results for our clients.
So, if you or a loved one has a jury trial in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Orange County, San Bernardino County, I’ve been to all of those places. I’ve been battling for my clients nearly 30 years.
You’ve come to the right place. Take the first step. Pick up the phone. Ask for a meeting with trial attorney, Ron Hedding.
Hedding Law Firm has two office locations in Los Angeles County. Contact our law firm for a free case evaluation at (213) 542-0940.