One of the most important decisions that an accused must make is whether to have a jury trial or trial by judge. Going to trial by jury means that the prosecution must convince twelve jurors that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas if you go to trial by judge, the prosecution only has to convince the judge.
Until a significant recent change in law, a jury trial also meant that the jury would decide your punishment if you were found guilty after a jury trial. Because juries must follow specific sentencing ranges that judges are not bound by, juries would often recommend stiffer sentences than what a judge would normally impose. Therefore, only a very small percentage of cases went to jury trial.
With the General Assembly's passage of S.B. 5007 during the 2020 Special Session, you can now exercise your right to a jury trial without the fear of a jury imposing a more lengthy sentence than would be imposed by a judge.
Here is the crux of the new sentencing law if you go to trial by jury and are convicted:
- You can have the judge decide your punishment instead of the jury, or
- You can decide to have the jury ascertain your punishment
There are benefits to both choices depending on the specific nature and circumstances of your case. It may be better to have a judge decide your punishment, or it may not. The point is that now, your decision to go to trial by jury does not have to hinge on it anymore.
Before this new law passed, prosecutors had the right to request a jury trial so even if you elected for a bench trial, the prosecution could request a jury. That would mean that anytime you decided to plead not guilty and request a trial, the prosecutor could request a jury trial. That's no longer the case, as far as your sentence is concerned. The only way you can be sentenced by a jury is if you decide that you want to be (actually, there is one exception—capital murder).
What are the benefits of having a judge decide punishment?
Several. For one, Virginia juries are not privy to your sentencing guidelines, which are usually much lower than the sentencing ranges that juries are instructed on. Judges are privy to the sentencing guidelines, and they are not bound by specific sentencing ranges. For example, a conviction for malicious wounding carries imprisonment for between 5 – 20 years. A judge is not bound by law to impose the minimum of 5 years. A judge can consider the recommended sentencing guidelines and impose a lesser sentence or even a diversion program. A jury cannot do either of these things.
What are benefits of having a jury decide punishment?
Let's say you are facing imprisonment for between 5 – 20 years for malicious wounding. There are instances in which criminal defendants find themselves before judges who are not known for being lenient. The nature and circumstances of your case might also be such where you determine that a judge will not likely follow the guidelines but instead impose a sentence that is higher than the minimum 5 years. In such a case, you might feel like you have a better shot at convincing a jury that the minimum term of 5 years should be imposed. Under Virginia law, the judge cannot impose a sentence higher than that recommended by a properly instructed jury.
What if the jury cannot agree on a sentencing range?
This is something that does happen, though it is rare. Under the new sentencing law, if a jury cannot agree on a punishment, the court shall fix punishment.
Who does this law apply to?
To every accused defendant charged with crimes other than capital murder. If you are charged with capital murder and have a trial by jury, the jury must also ascertain punishment: life or death.
When does the law take effect?
The law has a delayed effective date of July 1, 2021 due to an anticipated increase in jury trials now that you no longer have to fear facing a jury at sentencing just for exercising your constitutional right to a jury trial.
Charlottesville Jury Trial Defense Lawyer
Jury trials have been rare in Virginia. That may now change because the new jury trial sentencing affords criminal defendants better options. There can be serious consequences in deciding whether to be sentenced by a judge or jury. You need an attorney who has experience with juries. Such an attorney can make sure you get the best outcome in your case. Bryan J. Jones is committed to his clients and will develop a defense strategy tailored just for you. Contact Bryan J. Jones, LLC today.