For whatever reason, too many people accused of a crime now-a-days choose to accept a plea bargain and forego their constitutional right to a jury trial.[i] There are so many theories and reasons why this might be the situation, but I am here to offer a contrary perspective on why there should be more jury trials. Juries were originally designed to acquit.
Contrary to popular belief, I am here to tell you that the purpose and function of a criminal jury is to acquit the accused. Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote, “I begin from the fundamental premise, which hardly bears repeating, that ‘[t]he purpose of a trial is as much the acquittal of an innocent person as it is the conviction of a guilty one.’”[ii] Think about Justice Marshall’s statement. As a society, we have forgotten that a criminal jury trial is just as much about clearing the accused’s name as it is obtaining a conviction. The other thing that people often fail to appreciate is this: as long as there are no constitutional errors that interfered with jury trial right and process, whatever verdict a criminal jury returns is justice because the system worked.[iii]
During jury selection, I talk with the potential jurors about this idea that this criminal trial is also about clearing my client’s name. It is my client’s chance to get their liberty, freedom, and peace of mind back as it is anything else. As we discuss this topic during the selection process, it is always interesting for me to see few light bulbs go off above potential juror’s heads as they have a Eureka moment. Many of them have never considered that a trial could be for that purpose. In all honesty, how many Americans think of a criminal trial as the mechanism to clear the accused’s name? Probably very, very few. The truth is Americans are incessantly bombarded by media accounts of criminal atrocities all day long.
Our founders realized that the criminal justice system needed to be fair (otherwise what was the point?) After the ratification of the new constitution, the citizens of the several states realized that the new government without institutional checks could perpetrate the same atrocities on the citizens as the British troops did prior to Independence. Out of this dilemma, the Bills of Rights was born.
Over time, the founders put in place a few major constitutional mechanisms to protect the integrity of the system of the criminal justice system. These included a speedy and public trial (i.e., no star chambers or drumhead trials), a trial in the jurisdiction where the crime had occurred, notice as to the charges (i.e., no more secret charges), to confront and cross-examine the witness against the defendant, the assistance of counsel for a defense, no more excessive fines, the right to remain silent, and reasonable terms of release on bail pending trial. All these rights grew directly out of the years of abuse by the Crown. Many of these factors have now come to define what a fair trial should include.
Additionally, the new citizens realized that the most important part of the new criminal justice system was the jury. In no specific order, these mechanisms are:
- the burden of proof,
- proof beyond a reasonable doubt,
- the presumption of innocence,
- the right to confront and cross-examine, and
- the right to remain silent.
Each factor is a legal beast, but together these constitutional components complement each other to form the foundation of our system of justice.
And the backbone of the system are the wonderful citizens that give of their time to come and listen to the evidence presented by the government to determine an accused’s fate – – the jury. In every criminal trial, the jury is commanded that the accused is to be presumed “innocent” or “not guilty” unless and until the government proves otherwise to the exclusion of reasonable doubt. By design, it is the jury’s solemn responsibility to doubt everything and make the government satisfy the constitution’s extreme requirements. In this regard, a trial should be an exceedingly difficult proposition for the government regardless of its evidence; a good jury isn’t simply a “rubber stamp” for the government but an intense crucible challenging everything (because if the government is going to lock someone in a cage for a term of years – – everyone must have extreme confidence that the charges have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.)
Thinking of it in these terms, the following instruction is read verbatim to the jury in a Florida criminal case.
The defendant has entered a plea of not guilty. This means you must presume or believe the defendant is innocent. The presumption stays with the defendant as to each material allegation in the [charging document][iv] through each stage of the trial unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt.
To overcome the defendant’s presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which the defendant is charged was committed and the defendant is the person who committed the crime.
The defendant is not required to present evidence or prove anything.
Whenever the words “reasonable doubt” are used you must consider the following:
A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand, if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.
It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.
A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.
If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty.[v]
In federal court in Florida, the following similar instruction is provided to the jury.[vi] It reads:
As you know, this is a criminal case. There are three basic rules about a criminal case that you must keep in mind.
First, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The indictment against the defendant brought by the government is only an accusation, nothing more. It is not proof of guilt or anything else. The defendant therefore starts out with a clean slate.
Second, the burden of proof is on the government until the very end of the case. The defendant has no burden to prove [his] [her] innocence or to present any evidence, or to testify. Since the defendant has the right to remain silent and may choose whether to testify, you cannot legally put any weight on a defendant’s choice not to testify. It is not evidence.
Third, the government must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I will give you further instructions on this point later, but bear in mind that the level of proof required is high.
These instructions reflect the importance of the concepts to the trial process. These are not simply formalities but should be considered in this fashion: if we, as a society, are going to take someone freedom and liberty based on an allegation, and if convicted, we are going to lock them in a hole or cage, then we must ensure that the government is held to abide by these constitutional requirements to endure that the process is fair and constitutional. Make no mistake, the government is a giant machine and often has no compunction for criminal defendants. The government is a behemoth without compassion. Most days in America, Goliath pummels David and his sling. And, if you think I am overstating the situation, how come there are so many individuals that have been exonerated over the past couple of decades? It is because the system did not work as it should. It is not important who is at fault, but it is up to all of us to require juries to scrupulously guard against cynicism in the justice system.
Criminal cases are vastly different from civil cases. In civil a case, the side bringing the action usually must just prove with a little more oomph than the other side something happened or did not happened, not so in criminal court. In criminal court, the constitutional criminal rights are front and center. In a criminal case, the government must remove the specter of reasonable doubts about the proof. As such, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest standard of proof for a trial. There is a genius in its design.
On the one hand, it is the level of proof that the constitution requires be proven before the government can revoke a citizen’s liberty and freedom or impose and levy an outrageous tax, fee, or fine. On the other hand, “reasonable doubt” there to provide a sense of security to jurors who may be wondering or attempting to second guess their verdict because of the seriousness of endeavor. In this regard, the jury can take solace in the fact that either the case was proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” or it was not.[vii] If the case has not been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” then the jurors don’t have to wonder or guess, the verdict is simply “not guilty” and
Just as powerful, is the “presumption of innocence.” Some people pay lip service to the concept, but I assure you that the “presumption of innocence” is nearly all powerful in a criminal case. In our justice system, the government has all the resources, like prosecutors, law enforcement, and the crime labs …etc., at its disposal. It also has many specific laws on the books to assist in the prosecution. Many of these laws have become heavy handed in recent years. And it often has public sentiment on its side.
On the other side of this equation is the accused. Our founders recognized the complete inequity in the system and decided to create the “presumption of innocence” as the counterbalance to the government. It works in conjunction with the burden of proof. Think about it, if the government cannot meet its burden then the presumption of innocence commands the jury to acquit. Accusations are easy to make but are more difficult to prove.
Lastly, everyone accused of a crime has the right to remain silent. This is not some television slogan or punchline, but a bedrock of the system. The accused does not have to prove their innocence as they might have to do in some other countries. In America, the government must prove its case. Period. If the government does not, then the presumption of innocence controls and commands that the jury acquit the defendant. The accused does not have to say anything in this regard.
It is clear to any observer that the proper purpose of the jury is to acquit the accused unless and until the government can prove otherwise, beyond to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt, to overcome the presumption of innocence. Remember, Justice Marshall’s explanation, “[t]he purpose of a trial is as much the acquittal of an innocent person as it is the conviction of a guilty one.”
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm
Please do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss your trial or appeal. As a three-time, board-certified criminal trial defense attorney, I have the experience to accurately represent you. Over my 20-years, I have handled countless criminal trials and appeals to thoroughly understand the issues involved. A good defense attorney does not let the government diminish the role of the jury in a criminal trial. A good defense attorney does not let the government diminish the presumption of innocence or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When representing the accused, a good defense attorney makes for darn sure that government abides by these principles.
The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not be viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, then please feel free to leave me a comment below and thank you reading this blog article. You can also check out the author at his profile at AVVO.com click
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[i] Despite what people think and you hear in the media, there is no constitutional right to a plea bargain, only a trial. It is surprising to most Americans who think of the trial as a rarity (because there are fewer cases that proceed to trial for whatever reason). In fact, most historians believe that that the plea bargain was inappropriate legal mechanism to resolve a criminal case until its wider acceptance in the criminal court system the 1960s. There are historical references to plea bargains going back to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. https://www.britannica.com/topic/plea-bargaining
[ii] See U.S. v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 692, 105 S.Ct. 3375, 87 L.Ed.2d 481 (1985) (Justice Marshall dissent, “I begin from the fundamental premise, which hardly bears repeating, that “[t]he purpose of a trial is as much the acquittal of an innocent person as it is the conviction of a guilty one.” Application of Kapatos, 208 F.Supp. 883, 888 (SDNY 1962); see Giles v. Maryland, 386 U.S. 66, 98, (1967) (Fortas, J., concurring in judgment) (“The State’s obligation is not to convict, but to see that, so far as possible, truth emerges”).”
[iii] Please do not misunderstand me because I care deeply about this topic, but if law enforcement, the prosecution, and the judge all abide by the constitution and the law, and the jury returns a verdict after deliberations based on the evidence presented in the courtroom and the law, and there aren’t any appellate errors, then justice has been served. Period. I might not like the verdict for personal or professional reasons, but justice has been served. The verdict must truly a product of a trial that was constitutionally copasetic. Under these circumstances, I do not have a problem with a client going to prison if he/she was proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a constitutionally fair trial. Whether the sentence is fair might be a discussion for another time and place, but as discussed above, the system worked. As Americans, I think that is all we can ask for in this regard.
[iv] In Florida, the charging document can be a citation, an information, an indictment (first degree homicide only), or a juvenile petition.
[v] Florida Standard Jury Instruction for Criminal Cases, 3.7 Plea of Not Guilty; Reasonable Doubt; and Burden of Proof. http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/jury_instructions/instructions-ch3.shtml
[vii] Gerry Spence, voir dire on reasonable doubt.