Criminal Law

Deliberations in the Jury Room

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Judges will do their utmost to convince a jury to keep deliberating until they reach a verdict. Individual jurors' reasons for their decisions, however, will generally not come to light.

Jury deliberations in a criminal trial are the stuff of drama and mystery: Drama because they come at the end of an often contentious trial; mysterious because what goes on behind the closed door to the jury room generally remains a secret. This article explains how jurors are instructed to interact, how they are treated during their deliberations, and what happens when, occasionally, the court needs to intervene

The Care and Handling of the Jury

Jurors are largely left to themselves to come and go during the trial, but once the case is submitted to the jury (following closing arguments and the court’s instructions), the jury is kept together, under the supervision of a court officer. The officer accompanies them to lunch and guards the jury room door while they are inside. Keeping the discussions during deliberations a secret will help prevent the jury from being influenced by outside considerations or information. Twelve Angry Men

Judges often admonish the jury every time it separates for the day, reminding them not to discuss the case with anyone else and to refrain from doing any independent research.

In high publicity cases, where there’s a strong possibility that the jurors will be influenced by publicity, the court may order that they be sequestered. This means that they won’t go home at night. Instead, they’ll stay at a nearby motel or hotel, and take their meals together. The rest of the time, they deliberate.

Choosing a Foreperson

One of the first orders of business for the jury is to choose a foreperson. That individual will be the jury’s spokesperson in court and will preside over their deliberations, but the foreperson’s opinions should not be given more deference than those of any other juror. However, in practice the foreperson's may be given special weight, if only because the job is normally accepted only by those who are comfortable (and perhaps skilled) at leadership.

What Can the Jury Bring Into the Jury Room?

Judges have broad discretion when it comes to allowing the jury to bring or have items in the deliberation room. Normally jurors are not allowed to bring outside reading materials with them, and this prohibition may, in some states, extend to keeping one’s cell phone. For example, California judges may instruct jurors, “If you have a cell phone or other electronic device, keep it turned off while you are in the courtroom and during jury deliberations. An electronic device includes any data storage device. If someone needs to contact you in an emergency, the court can receive messages that it will deliver to you without delay.” (California Jury Instructions 101.)

Jurors are allowed to ask for and receive all items received in evidence (such as audio recordings, medical reports, and police reports), the jury instructions themselves, and any notes taken by the jurors during the trial. Other items, such as drugs, weapons, and video recordings may not be sent to the jury room if the judge thinks doing so would be unwise. Similarly, the judge may deny a request for an exhibit (such as a bloody jacket) if the court thinks that having it in the room would be more prejudicial than helpful.

When the Jury Asks for Help

Juries occasionally ask for more information to help them in their deliberations. For example, they may ask that certain testimony be re-read, or they may ask a question about the law. They may also ask for instructions on a point not already covered by the judge’s instructions.

Some courts require these requests to be in writing, and all courts insist that the discussion as to whether to comply be held in open court and recorded for the trial record, with the jury present if possible. Both the sides must have the opportunity to state their views on the request. The judge will consider the wisdom of granting these requests, and may do so in ways that balance the effect of saying yes. For example, a request that certain testimony be re-read may be granted, but the judge may also direct that the surrounding testimony be included too, in order to give the requested part more context.

Dealing With Deadlock

Sometimes even the most conscientious jury cannot reach a verdict. When the foreperson reports that the jury is “hopelessly deadlocked,” the judge has a choice: Declare a mistrial (setting the stage for another trial), or admonish the jury to go back and keep trying. Hoping to salvage the case and avoid another trial, judges almost always ask the jury to keep trying, at least once. The judge will encourage cooperation and open mindedness, but will try to avoid coercing the jury.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How are jurors excused? Is the process different when deliberations have begun?
  • How do lawyers prove that a juror consulted an outside source while deliberating?
  • Will juror misconduct always result in the court declaring a mistrial?
  • How common is it for one juror to turn the rest of the jury around, as happened in Twelve Angry Men?

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