Well, I am a lawyer in the U.S.; all the answers below relate to that. First I’ll say that this is an off-the-cuff response and that should your interest be anything more than curiosity, you should consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction, knowledgable about the facts of the case and with experience in criminal matters. I am none of these things and am not competent to render legal advice in this area. You are not my client. I am not your lawyer.
-I understand that in criminal matters the jury has to decide if the accused is guilty or innocent while the judge decide what the sentence will be. Am I right? Are there exceptions?
That’s generally correct, although there are exceptions. It goes to the ultimate difference between juries and judges – judges are supposed to be expert in the law, so if a defendant committed a crime, they know what punishment to mete out. Juries are expert in finding facts and weighing the credibility of the various witnesses in order to get to the truth, so they are charged with figuring out what actually happened.
As mentioned, the death penalty typically requires a jury finding not only of guilt but also of aggravated circumstances (as the state defines them) that justify imposition of capital punishment.
For small matters (misdameanors, which basically means any crime for which the defendant cannot be imprisoned for more than a year), there is no jury requirement.
Also, note that the jury is there to protect the defendant, so if he waives his right to a jury, there isn’t one and the judge is responsible to find the truth as well as to make legal rulings. This is called a bench trial.
-I also understand that the jury has to be unanimous. Is it true? It seems weird to me. What happens if they can’t agree (which I would expect to happen very often)? Is there a new trial? Or is the accused considered innocent?
Yes, criminal juries must usually be unanimous, although they don’t always need to be 12 people. (I think six is the minimum, but I don’t recall). If they can’t agree, you let them keep deliberating until they do agree. If it becomes clear they’ll never reach unanimity, it’s called a hung jury. If the jury is hung, then the prosecution can retry the accused or decide it’s not worth it. For serious crimes there would typically be a retrial, but a third or later trial is very rare – as a prosecutor, if you take two swings and you can’t convict, that tells you something about your case, or at least its appeal to the average jury.
Is there some kind of (moral) pressure on the jury to make clear that they must do everything to come to an agreement and an unanimous verdict, or is it something ingrained in the “jury culture” that such an agreement must be found?
As long as they’re still deliberating the jurors can’t get back to their lives, so that’s incentive for them to come to agreement. Also, even if the jury thinks it’s hung, if the judge feels they’ve come to that conclusion to soon, he can refuse to release them and tell them to keep deliberating.
[I skipped the bit about sequestration because it’s been answered already.]
-About plea bargains. Do they apply to the charges (the attorney accepting to drop some charges in exchange for a guilty plea) or to the sentences themselves (the attorney requiring a shorter jail sentence, for instance), or both? If they apply to the sentence, are they mandatory? I mean, can a judge sentence someone to life regardless though the attorney required only say, a 10 years sentence, in exchange for a plea bargain?
OK, first a word about terminology. In the U.S., an attorney just means a lawyer. When you’re saying “the attorney” in the abover question, you should be saying “the prosecutor,” which is the lawyer for the state who is trying to convict. The defendant’s lawyer is also called an attornet.
Plea bargains can be struck pretty much however the prosecutor and defense can agree. They can reduce the charges or merely the sentence. My understanding is that the judge can in fact reject the deal and give a pleaing defendant a longer sentence, but this is very rare. I might be wrong about this.
-I understand that there’s a jury even for civil matters. Is there always a jury? For instance, you’re challenging a speeding ticket in court. Will there be a jury?
No. Minor criminal offenses do not require a jury; in most jurisdictions you can be tried on a misdameanor charge without a jury and if found guity be sent to prison for up to a year. However, if the crime you’re charged with could result in a longer sentence you have a right to a jury, even if the sentence you ultimately get is less.
In civil matters, it’s much more complicated. First, if the amount in controversy is low, then there’s no right to a jury trial. Otherwise, there’s a right in actions at law but not in equity. This has to do with the historical development of the legal system in Britain centuries ago. Actions in law typically are ones where the plaintiff seeks money damages; equitable actions are usually where only an injunction sufficies. (That is, the plaintiff sues to get the Court to tell the defendant to stip doing something.) But actually it’s much more comples that this and a big mess.
-Still concerning juries and civil matters. I understand that in this case the jury will decide on the amount of the damages granted to the winning “side”, for instance. Why is it so if in criminal matters it doesn’t have to decide about the sentence?
That’s a good question and in part it’s merely historical, not logical. But one could argue that in a civil case, where the victim of the wrongdoing is a party, it’s important to know just how much damage was done. In a criminal case, the victim has no official status, and the only factual question on the table is whether the defendant broke the societal rules or not.
Similarly, the purpose of civil trials are typically to make injured plaintiffs “whole,” that is, to put them in the position they would have had were it not for the injury. The criminal justice system OTOH has no goal to recompense victims; it is concerned only with punishing wrongdoers. Therefore it doesn’t really matter (in a certain sense) how much bad the wrongdoer did, as long as he did some.
- What happens if the jury commits some gross legal error? Can the judgement be appealed on this basis, or is it considered that the jury, like the king, “can’t do wrong”?
The jury can do wrong. In civil trials, the judge has the power to overturn a jury verdict for either side if the jury came up with a verdict that “no reasonable jury” could have found. In fact, the judge also has the power to decide the case himself on summary judgment if the evidence and the law is overwhelmingly in favor of one party such that there’s no important question of fact – remember that the jury’s main job is to find facts, so if they’re not in serious dispute, the judge is just as qualified (perhaps moreso) to decide the case.
In criminal trials it’s a little different. If the jury convicts on insufficient evidence, the judge can throw out their verdict and call for a new trial. (In fact, the judge can even dismiss the charges before the jury gets the case if it’s clearly a loser). OTOH, the judge cannot ignore a jury verdict of acquittal even if it’s clearly “wrong.” That’s because the jury has the power and the right to ignore the law and find someone innocent even if they actually did what they’re being charged with. This is called jury nullification and can often result if a crime on the books is generally considered unfair by the populace.
-I understand that one has always to pay for his legal expenses like his lawyer, etc…, as opposed to these expenses being reimbursed if he’s found innocent or paid by the loosing side if he’s on the winning side. Is it true? Always true?
No, this isn’t really true. in criminal trials, you have an absolute right to a lawyer. If you can’t afford a lawyer, the state has to provide one and, in fact, they have to tell you that they’ll provide you a lawyer. In civil trials you have to pay for your own lawyer. Generally in the U.S. (it’s different in the UK), the winning side pays its own attorney’s fees, although “costs” such as court fees will be assessed against the loser. There are some situations in which this rule is changed, such as many types of civil suits against the government. Also, in contract disputes, if the contract says that the loser will pay the winner’s attorney’s fees, that provision of the contract will be followed.
-I’ve been told that the attorney isn’t required to search for evidences of the innocence of the accused, but is supposed to search for evidences he’s guilty. Is it true? If so, whose job it is to search for evidences of innocence? If it’s the accused lawyer job, as I’ve been told, it seems a very unbalanced system, since he would have much more limited means than an attorney (not even taking into account the fact that it would certainly be costly, hence a poor person wouldn’t have the same chances than a rich one). More generally, is the attorney always on the accusation side?
Again, by “attorney” you mean prosecutor. You’re right, the prosecutor doesn’t have to search for evidence of innocence. However, whatever material evidence of innocence he has, he does have to turn over to the defense. Note also (as I think was mentioned above) in the criminal context the defense doesn’t have to prove innocence, he merely has to show that there are some plausible holes in the prosecution’s theory. As long as he gets that far, he should win the case.
-Are most judges elected or nominated? When they aren’t elected, who chose them? Can they be fired? In what circumstances? When they are elected, what grades or diplomas are required, if any? Is it like a regular political campaign? Is it very politized? Can a candidate make “promises” about the way he will handle the cases he will have to hear about, like stating he’ll make sure that a lot of criminals will be harshly sentenced? Which would seems at first glance hardly acceptable from my point of view, since it would mean that the judge would be prejudiced and also that he could have something to loose (the next vote) if he appears too lenient.
In the U.S. there are two court systems, the individual state courts and the federal courts. All federal judges are appointed for life by the president upon confirmation by the Senate. They cannot be removed from office for any reason unless impeached by Congress – I believe this has only happened about 30 times in the 200+ years of American history. No particular qualification is required to be appointed as a federal judge – not even a law degree – although an appointee without a degree would almost certainly not get past the confirmation process. (I don’t know if there’s ever been one.)
States have their own processes. Most state trial judges are elected. Some states also elect their appeals judges, but some are appointed by the governor, either for life or more typically for a fixed term of years. Usually judges have some job security such that they can’t be fired, although they might be impeached by their state legislature or recalled by an unhappy electorate. Also, appointed judges may have the opportunity to be reappointed just as elected judges might need to get reelected, so they’re not completely insulated from the political system.
Many states prohibit judicial candidates from announcing the kinds of policies they’ll have as judges, although there is a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court which claims this is unconstitutional and that candidates should be allowed to say whatever they want. We’ll have to see how it develops.