Any defendant facing a possible sentence of more than six months in jail is entitled to a trial by jury. Jury trials are complicated. This article summarizes Las Vegas jury trial law. Scroll down further to learn about the right to a jury trial and how juries operate.
What is a Jury in Las Vegas, Nevada?
A jury (formally called a “petit jury”) is a group of local citizens in Nevada called upon to sit through a trial and then deliver a verdict. Juries may be used to determine not only the defendant’s guilt or innocence but also, if necessary, the final sentence.
Does everyone have the right to a jury trial in Nevada?
No. In Nevada defendants who are charged with a crime have the constitutional right to a jury trial only if they are facing more than six (6) months in jail. Also, people charged with misdemeanor battery domestic violence may have a jury trial.
Otherwise they are entitled to a “bench trial“, where their case is heard and decided by a judge rather than a jury.
The reason for this “six month” rule goes to federal law: Although Article III of the U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone charged with a crime the right to a trial by jury, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jury trial rights extend only to those facing more than six months in jail. However, some states like Texas still afford everyone the option to have a jury trial no matter what they are charged with.
Note that only competent people may stand trial.
Jury trial rights for a misdemeanor
Someone who is charged with one misdemeanor may not have a jury trial because a misdemeanor carries a maximum six months or less in jail. (One exception is for people charged with misdemeanor battery domestic violence — they may have a jury trial or a bench trial.) However a person who is charged with two or more misdemeanors may request a jury trial because their maximum sentence would then exceed six months.
Note that there is a Nevada law–NRS 175.011(2))–which seems to allow defendants to request jury trials for misdemeanor charges as long as they give 30 days’ notice. However, the Nevada Supreme Court has refused to recognize this law. (Smith v. State, 99 Nev. 806, 672 P.2d 631, (1983)).
Jury trial rights for a felony or a gross misdemeanor
People charged with a felony or a gross misdemeanor (or misdemeanor battery domestic violence) automatically have the right to a jury trial. That is because felonies and gross misdemeanors carry potential sentences greater than 6 months in jail.
How big are juries?
It varies. For trials taking place in a Justice Court such as Las Vegas Justice Court, the jury must be six people. For trials taking place in District Court such as Clark County District Court, the jury must consist of twelve people. However, the prosecution and defense may agree in writing to have as few as six jurors as long as the court approves.
Do jury verdicts have to be unanimous?
Yes. A Nevada jury has to unanimously decide whether to find the defendant “guilty” or “not guilty.” Otherwise it is a “hung jury,” and the judge declares a mistrial.
In cases of a mistrial the prosecution may choose either to:
- start all over and prosecute the case again, or
- offer a plea bargain to a lesser charge, or
- drop the case completely
How are jurors selected?
Prospective jurors are initially summoned at random through drivers’ license and voter registration lists in Nevada. Then once they come to court, lawyers from both the prosecution and defense may question the jury pool (called a “venire”) about their suitability to serve on a jury. This questioning process is called “voir dire.”
Typical voir dire questions asked of jurors include:
- Do you know or have dealings with any of the attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, or prospective witnesses in this case?
- Do you already know anything about this case?
- Do you have philosophical, religious or other beliefs that would prevent you from making a fair and impartial judgment?
Prospective jurors are also asked to provide information such as their education, occupation, job history, and any prior involvement in lawsuits.
Both the prosecution and the defense then get to “excuse” a certain number of the potential jurors.
Can jury verdicts be overturned?
It depends. A judge may never throw out a jury’s “not guilty” verdict. But a judge may overturn a jury’s “guilty” verdict if the judge believes the evidence did not support a finding of guilt.
How can attorneys discharge jurors from a case?
There are two ways an attorney may discharge a juror from a jury in Nevada: 1) For cause challenges, and 2) peremptory challenges.
- For cause: Like it sounds, “for cause challenges” are when a juror is discharged for a specific reason that could preclude his/her ability to carry out his/her duties. The attorney seeking the discharge has to state the reason, such as:
- the juror admits to a bias against the defendant,
- the juror is ill,
- the juror is inattentive or fell asleep during the trial,
- the jury displayed a heightened emotional reaction to evidence, or
- the juror engaged in misconduct
There is no limit to how many “for cause challenges” may occur during a trial.
- Peremptory challenges. A peremptory challenge allows an attorney to discharge a juror without stating the reason. The defense and prosecution are each entitled to four (4) peremptory challenges per trial occurring in alternating order. But if the defendant is facing life in prison or death, the limit is upped to eight (8) peremptory challenges each.Note that attorneys are not allowed to discharge jurors just because they are a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, or part of another “cognizable group.” If the opposing side suspects the attorney may have broken this rule, they may raise a “Batson challenge” arguing that the trial is invalid.
Can juries have alternate jurors?
Yes, a Nevada jury may include up to six (6) alternate jurors to take the place of any impaneled jurors who are discharged from the case. Note that attorneys for each side are allowed more peremptory challenges when alternate jurors become impaneled:
- If one or two alternate jurors are impaneled, each side is allowed one extra peremptory challenge that may be used only towards a new juror.
- If three or four alternate jurors are impaneled, each side is allowed two extra peremptory challenges that may be used only towards the new jurors.
- If five or six alternate jurors are impaneled, each side is allowed three extra peremptory challenges that may be used only towards the new jurors.
Note that any unused peremptory challenges from the original jury may not be used towards alternate jurors who then become impaneled.
What is a jury trial like?
Jury trials are actually very rare. The majority of criminal cases are resolved without the parties going to trial at all. But if the case does not get dismissed and the prosecution and defense cannot agree to a plea bargain, they ask the judge to set a trial date. This is often several months after the case started.
The stages of a jury trial in Nevada are:
- jury selection (voir dire)
- opening statements
- presentation of evidence — called the “case in chief” — including examination and cross-examination of witnesses (who may have been compelled to appear through subpoenas)
- closing arguments
- jury deliberations
- if the verdict is guilty, then sentencing
What happens during jury deliberations?
After the prosecution and defense present closing arguments, the case officially “goes to the jury.” At this point the judge reads the jury “jury instructions,” which informs them about the elements of the relevant crimes. The jury also chooses a “foreperson” to lead the deliberations.
Deliberations happen behind closed doors, but the jury may ask the judge for clarifications, to rehear testimony, to view the crime scene, etc. These requests must be made with the attorneys present, and they may not consider any evidence outside of the court record.
During the trial jurors may not speak to anyone about the case. And during deliberation jurors may speak only to each other about the case in the jury room. In rare instances juries are sequestered from the general public throughout the trial and deliberations.
What is the difference between a regular jury and a grand jury in Las Vegas, Nevada?
The purpose of a jury (also called a “petit jury”) is to listen to the trial and render a verdict of guilty or not guilty. In contrast, a grand jury comes in at the very start of a case in order to decide whether criminal charges will be filed to begin with.
In the majority of criminal cases the district attorney’s office decides to press charges without using a grand jury at all. But in very serious or high profile cases, the district attorney may try to imbue the case with an added sense of legitimacy by having a grand jury hear the evidence and decide for themselves whether prosecutors should bring an indictment.
A grand jury is bigger than a petit jury: It comprises seventeen jurors and twelve alternate jurors. And unlike petit juries, grand jury decisions do not have to be unanimous: Only twelve members need to vote yes to effectuate an indictment.
Arrested? Call . . . .
If you have been accused of a crime in Nevada, call Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys to discuss your options. They may be able to get your case resolved without having to go to trial at all.
See our related article on failure to appear for jury duty (NRS 6.040).
In California? Go to our information page on California criminal jury trials.
- Morgan v. Nevada, 134 Nev. Advance Opinion 27 (2018)(An attorney cannot strike a juror based on sexual orientation.).