December 16, 2014
By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
There are two core questions which a trial resolves. The first question is what is the applicable law given the charges and the second question to be answered is what are the facts we accept as true. When you put those two together, you have a verdict.
A judge decides what the applicable law is in any case and the jury decides which facts are true. If the parties “waive” a jury, then a judge can decide both the law and the facts and render a verdict on his/her own.
Let’s take an assault trial for example. Typically an accuser will testify x, y and z happened to them. Let’s just say for argument sake they say the defendant pushed them into a wall and hit their face with an open hand.
Perhaps others present during the incident testify as well and maybe a police officer who came later too takes the stand. Let’s also suppose for our hypothetical the defendant also testifies and admits to the conduct — but says they did so in self defense. The Judge will monitor the testimony, rule on objections of the parties and allow the jury to hear evidence and testimony lawfully admitted.
When the evidence is complete, the Judge will issue a Jury Charge to the jurors which guides their deliberations. The charge will contain the applicable law and will request the jury to answer one or more questions based on what they saw and heard in court.
In an assault case like the one described above, the judge would give the jury the legal definition of assault and possibly the definition of self defense — depending on the specific facts Defendant testified about. The jury charge is typically three or four pages long and in a criminal case only has one question to answer — is the defendant guilty or not guilty.
If the jury finds the defendant guilty, they may also decide the punishment, again based on jury instructions from the judge. Criminal defendants in Texas have the right to elect a judge or jury assess punishment in the event they are found guilty.
As lawyers we take for granted everyone knows what a jury does but we sometimes forget that unless you went to law school — or have served on a jury — the entire process can be a bit fuzzy. I hope this helps!