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What is a Mistrial? How and Why Do They Occur?

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that, in all criminal prosecutions, the accused criminal has the right to a trial by an impartial jury of the state and district in which the individual allegedly committed a crime. This sacred and fundamental right ensures that a person charged with a crime will not be convicted unless the jury of his or her peers, usually 12 men and women, finds the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When this process is hampered or tainted in such a way as to materially affect the fairness of the proceeding, the trial is terminated before a final verdict is handed down, as a safeguard designed to protect the defendant’s civil liberties.

A mistrial is a trial that is considered to be “null and void” before a judge or jury hands down a decision, usually due to a material defect that precludes a fair outcome. Thus, all previous evidence and testimony is not considered, if a new trial is ordered. In Pennsylvania, the defense is afforded the opportunity to file a motion with the court for a mistrial if an event occurs that causes significant prejudice to the defendant, which the court may grant, resulting in the halting of the trial. For instance, if it is discovered that a juror is not impartial or had contact with a witness or attorney involved in the case, or conducted research on the web seeking information related to the case.

The most common ground for a mistrial is due to the jury’s inability to reach a unanimous verdict in the case. This is commonly known as a “hung jury.” A mistrial may also occur when one of the participants becomes unavailable due to death or illness, or other cause, such as a jury member, attorney, key witness, or the judge presiding over the case. Further, if inadmissible evidence is presented to the jury at trial, a mistrial may result.

When a mistrial is declared, it must be determined whether there is proper cause for a second trial. The prosecution has the option of refiling the case, with the procedural defects sufficiently cured, if they believe the interests of justice are served by re-trying the case. This inquiry implicates the Fifth Amendment protection against “double jeopardy,” which means that the accused is not subjected to prosecution for the same offense twice. Pennsylvania law requires that an analysis of “manifest necessity” as to whether there is cause for a second trial. This analysis generally examines whether the reasons necessitating a new trial were in connection with problems that were not the fault of the prosecution or the judge, such as a pleading defect, compromise of juror partiality, or unavailability of a key participant. If the court determines that the judge or prosecution has acted in such a way as to the compromise of the fairness and integrity of the case, it may dismiss the case “with prejudice,” preventing the case from being re-tried.

If you are facing a criminal charge, you should speak with a qualified criminal defense attorney to determine the potential consequences regarding your pending criminal charge. Contact the criminal defense lawyers at Tanner Law Offices. Our team of skilled professionals is prepared to defend you through this challenging time and ensure your rights are fully protected. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.