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Understanding the Guilt and Sentencing Stages in a Virginia Criminal Trial

Jurors have had the power to issue sentences for convicted criminals in Virginia since the late 1700s. Many people believed the criminal justice system was unfair to felons found guilty of crimes. They argued those involved in the sentencing process could manipulate these alleged offenders and limit their legal rights and choices.

The sentencing phase in criminal trials changed on July 1, 2021. A sentence issued by the jury is still an option for offenders found guilty of a crime. However, it’s not the only option available. The new process allows convicted defendants to choose whether their sentence comes from a judge or jury.

The Guilt and Sentencing Phases

States around the country still rely on the old system while sentencing offenders. First, the jury or judge advises whether they find the defendant guilty or not guilty. If guilty, the process moves on to sentencing.

A sentencing hearing is where the jury determines an appropriate penalty based on state guidelines. Until July 2021, the jurors could decide the punishment a defendant should face. The judge could reduce the recommended sentence if they disagreed with the jury.

Before the new law took effect, previous criminal cases didn’t always occur before a jury. If a judge tried the case and convicted the defendant, they typically moved forward to a sentencing hearing. The judge would review state sentencing guidelines and a presentencing report and consider information provided by the Commonwealth Attorney or Defense.

Although the defendant could choose whether they wanted a jury trial, the Commonwealth Attorney or a judge had the power to order a jury trial. This could occur in Virginia even if the defendant waived their right to a jury trial.

According to criminal advocates, the criminal justice system in Virginia hasn’t favored alleged offenders. Juries often include residents from the county where the trial is held who don’t know much about the law. They must base their decisions on the evidence they see at trial and what the judge tells them.

When deciding whether to convict defendants, juries did not know the sentencing guidelines for specific crimes. The new law now allows jury members to receive information regarding possible sentences for the charges the defendant faces. The prosecutor and defense attorney also have the opportunity to question potential jurors during voir dire to determine whether they can issue an impartial and fair sentence. 

Activists thought prosecutors would threaten defendants with a jury trial unless the defendant pled guilty to the offense. These activists believed the old system was corrupt and gave prosecutors the power to coerce alleged criminals into facing a jury, which could result in more severe punishments upon conviction.

Unfortunately, a guilty conviction meant the defendant would have to serve a sentence. Instead of taking their chances with a jury, the offender would do what the prosecution wanted all along and plead guilty.

How the System Is Changing

July 1, 2021, was the first date in Virginia that defendants were allowed to choose how they wanted sentencing to occur. They could pick whether they wanted the jury or judge to decide the punishment.

This new law is vital to maintaining the rights of defendants and avoiding the potential for prosecutors to manipulate the system. It gives charged offenders the chance to move forward with a jury trial that has the potential to result in a fair outcome instead of feeling intimidated into pleading guilty or accepting a plea deal.

How We Can Help

If you were arrested or charged with a crime in Hampton Roads, VA, do not hesitate to contact Shannon & Associates, P.C. Our experienced legal team can create a defense strategy to fight the charge you face and try to get it reduced or dropped. We will work hard to protect your rights and future.

Call us for your free initial consultation today at (757) 228-5529.

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