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What is a Mistrial in a Criminal Case

By Spodek Law Group | July 17, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 12, 2023)

Last Updated on: 12th October 2023, 06:23 pm

What is a Mistrial in a Criminal Case?

A mistrial is when a trial ends before the jury reaches a verdict or the judge makes a ruling. This happens when there is a serious problem during the trial that prevents it from being fair or following proper procedures. A mistrial basically means the trial has to start over from the beginning with a new jury.

Mistrials don’t happen very often, but when they do it’s usually for one of these main reasons:

The Jury Can’t Reach a Unanimous Verdict

In a criminal case, the jury has to reach a unanimous verdict of either guilty or not guilty. That means all 12 jurors have to agree. If after deliberating for a long time the jury still can’t agree, the judge will declare a mistrial due to a “hung jury.” Then the prosecution has to decide whether to retry the case.

There Was Juror Misconduct

If a juror intentionally disobeys the judge’s orders, like doing research on the case on their own, that can cause a mistrial. Also if a juror has improper contact with one of the parties in the case. Basically anything that shows the juror is biased or considering evidence they shouldn’t be.

One of the Attorneys Messed Up

If the prosecution or defense makes a big procedural error or does something improper, the judge may declare a mistrial. Like if an attorney mentions evidence that had been ruled inadmissible, or makes inappropriate comments in front of the jury.

New Evidence Surfaces Mid-Trial

Sometimes new evidence comes to light in the middle of a trial that significantly changes things. If the judge decides this evidence could have impacted the trial but it’s too late to introduce it now, they may declare a mistrial so the evidence can be considered properly in a new trial.

There’s a Problem with a Witness or Attorney

If a key witness suddenly becomes unavailable or dies during the trial, that may lead to a mistrial. Or if one of the attorneys becomes seriously ill or has a family emergency mid-trial. Basically anything that prevents the trial from continuing fairly.

The Judge Made a Serious Mistake

Sometimes the judge makes an error that irreparably harms the fairness of the trial, like allowing inadmissible evidence that prejudices the jury. Declaring a mistrial is the only way to undo the damage at that point.

What Happens After a Mistrial?

After a mistrial is declared, the prosecution has to decide whether to retry the case or let the defendant go free. They usually will retry the case unless the problem was so severe that a second trial seems unlikely to succeed.

The defendant can’t claim double jeopardy to prevent being retried after a mistrial, unless the judge specifically says the case is dismissed “with prejudice.” That’s very rare though. So most defendants will have to face trial again after a mistrial.

If there is a second trial, both sides have more insight into the other side’s strategies and evidence. This can make the trial more difficult, but also gives the attorneys a chance to improve their approach. Witnesses may also have cloudier memories the second time around.

Overall, mistrials are frustrating and time-consuming for everyone involved. But the justice system views them as necessary in order to preserve fairness and the integrity of the process. They want to get verdicts right, even if it takes more than one try in some cases.

Common Questions about Criminal Mistrials:

Can the defense request a mistrial?

No, only the judge can declare a mistrial. But the defense can request the judge to do so if they believe there has been a serious procedural error or other problem that warrants a mistrial.

Does a mistrial mean the defendant goes free?

No, a mistrial is not an acquittal. The prosecution still has the option to retry the case with a new jury, unless the judge dismisses the case “with prejudice.”

Can a mistrial be declared because of a hung jury?

Yes, a hung jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict is one of the most common reasons for a mistrial. If the jury tells the judge they are hopelessly deadlocked, the judge will likely declare a mistrial.

Can you have a mistrial in a civil case?

Yes, mistrials can happen in civil cases as well as criminal ones. The same kinds of procedural errors or jury problems that would lead to a mistrial in a criminal case could also cause one in a civil case.

How often do mistrials happen?

Mistrials are relatively rare, occurring in only about 2-10% of criminal cases that go to trial, from various studies. But high-profile cases are more prone to them since the stakes are higher.

Is a mistrial good or bad for the defendant?

It’s hard to say definitively if a mistrial is good or bad. It may give the defense more insight into the prosecution’s case for a second trial. But it also gives the prosecution another chance if the first trial was going poorly for them.

In Summary:

  • A mistrial ends a trial before a verdict is reached due to a serious problem making the trial unfair
  • Common reasons include a hung jury, juror misconduct, attorney errors, new evidence, or witness issues
  • After a mistrial, the prosecution usually retries the case with a new jury
  • The defense can’t claim double jeopardy to prevent a retrial after a mistrial
  • Mistrials are rare but do happen in high-profile, complex criminal cases

I hope this breakdown helps explain the basics of what a mistrial is, why they happen, and what the aftermath looks like in a criminal case. Let me know if you have any other questions!

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