The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals the right to a trial by an impartial jury in criminal cases. In 49 of the 50 states (and in all federal courts), the jury’s verdict must be unanimous (Oregon still permits verdicts if at least 10 of the 12 jurors can agree.)
There is no set time limit for jury deliberations. Once testimony has concluded and the jury has been given the charge – the judge’s written instructions on the law – the ball is in the jury’s court.
Jurors will go behind closed doors, where they will deliberate in secret until they reach a unanimous decision about a defendant’s guilt or innocence. This can take five minutes, five hours, five days or five weeks.
Official statistics aren’t kept on jury deliberations, but in 2003, a jury in Oakland, California deliberated 55 days before acquitting three police officers accused of assaulting and falsely arresting residents. In Tarrant County, Texas, one of the longest jury deliberations in memory occurred in 2006 when a jury deliberated six days before convicting Rev. Terry Hornbuckle of sexually assaulting three women.
Some believe short deliberations mean jurors have found the defendant guilty, while longer deliberations mean they are leaning towards acquittal. Despite these theories, trying to predict the length of jury deliberations is generally a futile effort. Consider this:
It is safe to assume that jury deliberations may take longer in complicated cases with multiple defendants, counts or charges, which will require longer jury instructions. Still, there is no “average” jury deliberation and the time-frame is anyone’s guess.
Because jury verdicts must be unanimous in criminal cases in most jurisdictions, it is not uncommon for deliberations to stall or reach an impasse. If a jury sends a note saying they are deadlocked, the judge can give them an instruction urging them to try harder to reach an agreement.
This strongly worded instruction —called an “Allen Charge” — is read by the judge and encourages jurors in the minority not to surrender to group pressure, but to listen to the views of others with an open mind. The judge also often informs the jury that, if they cannot reach a verdict, the case will likely be tried over again before another jury, who will probably hear the same evidence and have similar difficulties.
The Allen Charge comes from the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case, “Allen v. United States. The case involved 14-year-old defendant Alexander Allen who was tried and convicted twice of murder for killing 18-year-old Philip Henson in Arkansas. Both convictions were reversed due to error in the jury instruction, and during Allen’s third trial, the jury told the judge were having trouble reaching a decision. The Judge instructed the jury to re-examine their thoughts, leading to what is now known as the Allen Charge.
The Allen Charge is also sometimes referred to as “Dynamite Charge” for its ability to “blast” a verdict out of a deadlocked jury.
Despite their efforts, sometimes juries just can’t reach a unanimous decision after lengthy jury deliberations. This is often referred to as a “hung jury.” When it becomes evident that a verdict will not be reached in the case, the judge will declare a mistrial.
In the event of this type of a mistrial, the defendant is neither convicted or acquitted. The prosecutor can take the case to trial again before a different jury without affecting the double jeopardy clause.
In some instances, the state may decide not to retry the case and will dismiss the charge. Prosecutors may also try and resolve the case by negotiating a plea bargain agreement.
And while the final outcome will probably not be known for some time, one thing is certain for all those involved in the case: Waiting is the hardest part.