A hung jury is a term used when a trial jury is unable to reach a unanimous or near unanimous verdict. This means that the jurors are unable to determine, as a collective body, whether or not a defendant is guilty or not guilty. In a civil case, this means that a jury was unable to find for the plaintiff or for the defendant.
Trial juries generally consist of six to 12 members, depending on the type of case being tried. After both sides have presented their arguments, the members deliberates on the facts of the case to determine its verdict. For a verdict to be reached, a minimum number of the jurors must be in agreement. In most criminal cases, a jury’s decision must be unanimous, but there are some instances that allow for less than unanimity in a jury’s decision.
When a hung jury occurs, the presiding judge declares a mistrial, meaning that the trial has ended without a judgment. In a criminal case, the prosecuting attorney can decide whether or not to pursue a new trial, negotiate a plea bargain, or drop the charges. In a civil trial, a judge will direct that the case be re-tried at a future date.
A mistrial of this type is widely considered to be an undesirable outcome, so many judges will order the jury to continue their deliberations in the hope of reaching a verdict. This is often called a “dynamite charge,” as it is intended to help a hung jury break through the impasse. The dynamite charge is considered a controversial and coercive practice. Some studies have indicated that some jurors in the minority felt pressured to change their votes when the charge is issued.
Trial by jury is a fundamental component of many legal systems around the world. While the exact origins of the concept are not clear, it is known that the Magna Carta, issued by King John of England in 1215, stated that, “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned ... or in any other way destroyed ... except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice.”
In the United States, the right of an accused in a federal criminal case to have a trial by a jury of one’s peers is codified in the U.S. Constitution under the Sixth Amendment. All of the individual states in the U.S. have similar provisions, guaranteeing an accused the right to a jury trial at the state level. The Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution also provides for the right to a jury trial in certain civil cases tried in Federal courts.