Hung Jury: Definition & Impact

Instructor: Jennifer Schneider

Jennifer teaches critical thinking, legal writing and research, business law and justice studies courses. She has a law degree.

In this lesson, we will learn what happens when a jury is unable to reach a required consensus. We'll also explore what the next steps are in a case after there's a hung jury, and then you can take a quiz to measure your knowledge.

Group Consensus?

Group decisions are hard. Decisions involving important issues, like an individual's guilt or innocence, are even harder. Hung juries illustrate just how hard decision making can be. Sure, clear directions help. Opportunities to review presented facts and supporting evidence help, too. However, despite clear instructions and extensive evidence, a group consensus is not always attainable. A hung jury results when group consensus is stymied.

Consider the process of selecting a restaurant for dinner. Your group might set clear expectations for price, ambiance, and cuisine. You identify all qualifying restaurants and then the group decides. Sometimes you agree easily. Other times something intangible prevents a group consensus. Why? Human beings interpret and process information differently.

What tastes delicious to Jill might be too salty for Joe. Tolerable noise levels for Bill might be unbearable to Sue. Seasoned fries might be perfect for Sam but too bland for Frank. If your group requires everyone (or most everyone) to agree, there may be times you can't reach a consensus and decide to skip the event altogether. (Hopefully, you still had dinner.)

Hung Juries and the U.S. Judicial System

Given individuals' fundamentally unique interpretations of information, it is not surprising that group decision-making challenges impact our court system, as well.

A hung jury is a legal term that describes a group of jurors (individuals selected from an initial pool and intended to represent a cross-section and unbiased group of a defendant's peers) who cannot reach a required consensus on the case they have been asked to decide. Although the significance is typically much greater than a missed meal, the impact of irreconcilable points of view is the same.

In the U.S., a jury typically consists of six to twelve individuals. Jury sizes vary (although federal juries usually consist of twelve members), and depend on both the type of case being tried and the specific law (federal or state) governing the case. During a trial, both sides of a case (plaintiff and defense) present their arguments and supporting evidence to the jury.

W. S. Gilbert illustration for Now, Jurymen, Hear My Advice from Trial by Jury by Gilbert and Sullivan
Image of a jury and an attorney

After arguments are presented, the jury is asked to deliberate, or decide. During deliberations, jurors review the arguments made and the evidence shared. Jurors ask questions to clarify unclear points. In order for a trial to conclude, the jury must come to a conclusion. There is no running clock. The jury can take as much (or as little) time as it needs.

Civil vs. Criminal Cases

Our legal system distinguishes between civil and criminal cases. Civil cases address private disputes involving individuals or organizations. Criminal cases, which address acts viewed as harmful to society, are brought by the government. For civil cases, a hung jury means that the jury is unable to find in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant. In a criminal trial, a hung jury means that the jury cannot decide if the defendant is guilty or innocent of the charges against him or her.

Depending on the nature of the case, the extent of required agreement among jurors varies. Some states require a unanimous decision for a criminal conviction; some states do not. Federal criminal cases typically require a unanimous jury decision. In some cases, though, a less-than-unanimous decision suffices. Civil cases typically require some type of majority decision.

Reasons for Hung Juries

There are many reasons for hung juries. Disagreement is often due to varying opinions on presented evidence, different impressions of involved parties (plaintiff, defendant, witnesses and attorneys), and varying personal perspectives and beliefs. Members of a jury are individuals who process information in unique ways. Just like a group of friends sometimes has difficulty agreeing, so does a jury.

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