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Zimmerman Trial – What is a Hung Jury and Why it Might Happen?

Zimmerman Trial – What is a Hung Jury and Why it Might Happen?

by John M. Phillips

I wrote about the importance and foundation of the jury trial system here.  With that as a basis, you are hearing a lot about a “deadlocked” or “hung” jury.  This piece will explain what that is and why it is a distinct possibility here. Statistics show that hung juries cause a mistrial in 5% to 12% of the more than 200,000 felony criminal jury trials that occur in the United States each year.

The State of Florida (Trayvon Martin) versus George Zimmerman case has divided a nation.  Factions are convinced Zimmerman’s right to self defense was triggered as soon as Trayvon became a threat to his safety.  Others flip it around and say Zimmerman, by getting out of the car with a gun, threatened his own safety.  Both sides are grounded in fact and in law.  This is a close case in many ways because it contains so many issues of race, gun rights, self defense and stand your ground questions and whether reason should rule the day.  So, why shouldn’t it divide six women who come from different backgrounds?

The problem with division is a jury must reach a unanimous consensus of voting “guilty” or “not guilty” in Florida.  A few states, such as Louisiana and Oregon, have situations permitting verdicts to come down to 11-1 or 10-2 majorities in order to make a conviction for certain felonies.  However, whether in juries of 6 or 12 (reserved for capital criminal cases), Florida requires unanimity in its court verdicts.  Every person must agree and, at the end, individually own the verdict as his or her own.

When a jury is “hung up” or “deadlocked” on an issue, it therefore becomes a problem. Some might recall the screenplay, 12 Angry Men.  The setting is a courtroom in New York City, where an 18-year-old boy from a slum is on trial for allegedly stabbing his father to death. The judge instructs a jury of 12 men to decide whether the boy is guilty of murder. One juror has tickets to a basketball game, one prejudges the poor boy because of where he came from. Almost all have their reasons for a quick conviction.  One primary hold-out pulls a case from certain conviction to acquittal.

If seemingly deadlocked, according to the Florida Supreme Court, the judge may deliver additional instructions – known as an “Allen charge” – to encourage the jurors to continue to seek a verdict. The name comes from an 1896 Supreme Court case, Allen v. The United States, which found that this added encouragement was not considered coercion or forced compromise.

The official charge used in Florida includes the following clarifications:

“There are two things a jury can lawfully do: agree on a verdict or disagree on what the facts of the case may truly be. There is nothing to disagree about on the law […] If you have any disagreements about the law, I should clear them up for you now. That should be my problem, not yours.”

The Florida Bar Association notes that a judge must read the designated Allen charge verbatim, or – if a modified version is used – it has to specify that the jurors are not obligated to reach a consensus, and they should by no means give up on their “conscientious concerns” in order to do so.  Further, in giving an Allen charge, the trial court must avoid 1) coercive deadlines; 2) threats of marathon deliberations; 3) pressure for the surrender of conscientiously held beliefs; and 4) any implication of a false duty to decide.  In Tomlinson versus State, the court held it was reversible, fundamental error to repeat a deadlock jury instruction after the jury has announced a second deadlock. There has been some exception, depending on the circumstances.

If the “12 Angry Men” were not able to agree, or if these 6 women in Sanford are not able to agree, it results in a mistrial, and the case can be retried, according to the Rules of Criminal Procedure in federal court and most states. Hung juries have been criticized for wasting significant amounts of time and money, as the trial is a “do over,” and the time spent- wasted. Hung juries are burdensome to the parties caught up in the justice system, witnesses, victims, and already crowded courts.  Hung juries allow the prosecution to benefit from an earlier “dress rehearsal” or prevent the prosecution from retrying the case because of time or money considerations or problems with witnesses.

The fact is -ANYONE- and I mean -anyone- predicting what these six women are doing or will do have no clue.  Their deliberations are anonymous and should remain anonymous and sacrosanct.  Let’s let them take their time to decide because this is a very important case to the Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, to George Zimmerman, to you and me, and to this great country.