Many recent criminal jury verdicts have evoked the public's frustration with the justice system in the United States. New York State Supreme Court Justice Harold J. Rothwax speaks for many others when he says that criminal trials "too often produce results that are inaccurate or unjust." Many Americans have thus called for radical reforms. The jury is considered "the jewel and the centerpiece" of the American justice system. Those who hail this system as the best in the world are generally referring to the jury. The jury represents the people "standing between a possibly oppressive government and the lonely, accused individual." Too frequently, however, juries acquit blatantly guilty defendants, convict obviously guilty defendants of much lesser offenses, fail to deliberate sufficiently, or fail to reach a verdict in cases with overwhelming evidence. Injustices in the jury system have prompted many scholars to advocate its overhaul.
A hung jury is one that is "so irreconcilably divided in opinion that [it] cannot agree upon any verdict by the required unanimity." Hung juries have been criticized for wasting significant amounts of time and money. They are burdensome to defendants, witnesses, victims, and already crowded courts. A second trial drains state treasuries and places tremendous emotional and financial strains on defendants. Hung juries either 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. Further, hung juries give the public the impression that the justice system is not working. Statistics show that hung juries cause a mistrial in five to twelve percent of the more than 200,000 felony criminal jury trials that occur in the United States each year. Reducing the frequency of hung juries without sacrificing justice should be a priority to increase the efficiency of the criminal justice system.
This Comment analyzes whether permitting supermajority verdicts is one means to achieve this goal. Part II of this Comment reviews the evolution of our current jury system, including the origins of the unanimity requirement. Part III examines how the United States Supreme Court abandoned the unanimity requirement by finding that it is not constitutionally required. Part IV compares the behavioral traits of unanimity-rule juries with majority-rule juries. Part IV also proposes a system for allowing supermajority verdicts. Finally, Part V concludes that permitting nonunanimous verdicts will enhance efficiency and promote justice.
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