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After all of the evidence and arguments have been presented in a criminal trial, the judge officially hands the case over to a jury for final deliberations. The hope is that all twelve original jurors will be able to reach a unanimous decision and render a verdict. But occasionally a jury may become so divided that a unanimous decision simply cannot be formed. The jury foreman may communicate this impasse through a note to the presiding judge. In order to avoid declaring a mistrial or hung jury, the judge may deliver what is known as the Allen charge, or dynamite charge.
The Allen charge dates back to the case of Allen Vs. United States in 1896. The courts ruled that a judge did have the right to strongly encourage deadlocked jurors to continue deliberations until a verdict is reached. Today, there are a number of variations on the original charge text approved in 1896. Some of these modifications have been declared unconstitutional or prejudicial by appellate courts, so individual judges tend to use their own approved Allen charge. A judge cannot force or coerce a jury into reaching a verdict by mentioning the expenses of the trial, for example.
Because of its strong wording, courts have held that an Allen charge can only be delivered once during the deliberation phase. The judge can use a less stringent form of this charge during his first instructions to the jury, however. Essentially, an Allen charge acknowledges that the jury has become deadlocked or otherwise unable to reach a unanimous decision. The judge reminds the jury of the importance of the trial and how much time and effort has already been expended. Neither the prosecution or defense would want another trial, since the new jury would still hear the same evidence.
The Allen charge also reminds jurors that strongly held beliefs are not the same as careful consideration of the evidence. If the majority of the jurors agree on conviction, those in the minority should ask themselves why their opinions have not swayed the other jurors. If the majority vote for acquittal, then hold-outs for conviction may need to consider reasonable doubt. A modified Allen charge may also use flattering language about the jurors' dedication to duty and their ability to remain open-minded. The ultimate goal of an Allen or dynamite charge is to reinvigorate the jury and discourage lengthy but fruitless deliberations.
Sometimes I'll hear about juries becoming deadlocked on a high profile case and hope that they don't just sign off on a verdict because they're tired or have better things to do. I think a dynamite charge can be useful if the current vote is 10 to 2, but it might be too little too late if the jury is still at 7 to 5 after three or four days.
I was the foreman on a mock jury one time for a personal injury case and the vote kept coming back 11 to 1 in favor of the defendant. Most of us agreed that the plaintiff caused most of her own injuries because of her own negligence, not the company that installed her gas water heater. She chose to use gasoline inside her home to clean up some spilled paint, and the fumes reached an exposed gas pilot light on the water heater. She received third degree burns as a result of the explosion.
One juror, who we found out was a nurse by trade, couldn't get past the photographs of the plaintiff's burns. She wanted someone to be
held responsible for the woman's injuries and pay substantial damages. The rest of the jurors felt the water heater company couldn't be held liable for someone bringing a dangerous flammable chemical inside her home for an unauthorized purpose such as cleaning. There are other chemical cleaners capable of removing dried paint.
Because we were hopelessly deadlocked for hours, the judge came in and read us the equivalent of the Allen charge. We weren't supposed to allow emotions or personal empathy to cloud our legal judgment. We had to let the facts presented in court guide us towards a unanimous decision, even if we felt sorry for the plaintiff or the defendant as human beings. The judge's charge worked, and we finally reached a unanimous verdict in favor of the defendant.
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