If you are charged with a crime, that does not mean all hope is lost. The United States Constitution has given you the right to defend yourself, so you are not considered guilty from the get-go.
Specifically, the Sixth Amendment guarantees you that right. It says, “...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….” Because of this, it is not the judge that prosecutors have to convince. It is a jury made up of people who often have as much experience with the law as you.
While the Constitution gives you the right to a trial by jury, the idea predates the Constitution, going back to medieval times in England. It was seen as a way to protect the accused from the absolute power of the established government at the time–the monarchy.
By the time the 13 colonies were established, jury trials were already popular. In fact, every one of the colonies guaranteed the right well before the Constitution was written.
You don’t necessarily have to plead your case before a jury. You can always do what is called a bench trial. This is where you go before a judge, who will make every decision, including whether or not you are guilty and what your sentence will be.
However, depending on the case, this is not likely in your best interest. A judge will make sure to follow every rule to a tee. If your charges are overly punitive — but within the law — a jury would be more likely to rebel against the letter of the law than the judge.
Prosecutors also have to convince more people in a jury trial. In Utah, that is either four, eight or twelve people, depending on the case. Every single one of those people has to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty. If even one person thinks you might be innocent, they cannot convict you.
Jurors are ordinary citizens who are summoned. This actually starts out from a selection of citizens who have filled out a questionnaire that qualifies them to serve on a jury.
When they are summoned, a process called voir dire takes place, where potential jurors are questioned by the attorneys and the judge. This helps determine which people will be truly impartial. If a potential juror personally knows someone involved with the case or has information about it, that person is usually excused.
The impartiality of a jury is another reason you would want a jury trial over a bench trial. A jury is supposed to know only the evidence presented. Sometimes a judge will withhold evidence from a jury that was incorrectly obtained so it does not influence the decision.
In a bench trial, the judge knows all the evidence, including the type that would not be presented before a jury. While the judge may try to disregard that evidence, it may be hard to do so.
If you are charged with a crime, you will want an experienced attorney who has been through the process before and can help you navigate it. This includes selecting a jury and presenting your case before it.
The lawyers at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat have more than four decades of experience, and they can help you in whatever stage of the process you are in. Call (801) 532-5297 for a free consultation.
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