Derek Chauvin's current trial seems to be one of the most followed and most emotionally significant trials. Feelings and opinions are strong on both sides. Many consider it an open-and-shut case (some celebrities even state that he should be convicted without a trial), yet on deeper examination it's not all that easy for the prosecution. It's the prosecution which has to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and several of the defense's arguments (for example, Floyd repeatedly saying he can't breathe even while he was still in the car) might become a tough nut to crack. This means the trial can still have surprises, and strong emotions could be stirred up in certain groups if the results fall far from their expectations. For example, many people strongly believe that if Chauvin is found not guilty, or if his sentence is not harsh enough, then significant riots will ensue.

I presented the above example as a context to my question: by deciding on a verdict, a jury should concentrate on what really happened, and not on what feelings they think might be evoked by the public upon hearing their decision. Yet jurors are all human, and might consciously or unconsciously still take such things into account. Consider the hypothetical case the jury thinks that guilt cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt, but they declare guilty anyway, for fearing a potential riot. They might rationalize that by sentencing a person they believe to be innocent, they save potentially hundreds or thousands from grievous harm.

How is such a dilemma handled by the courts?

Please note that this question is not about your opinion about what the verdict should be in the mentioned example. It's about the possibility when the judge or jury sincerely believe a defendant to be innocent but declare guilty (or sincerely believe a defendant to be guilty but declare innocent) solely because they personally believe that the correct verdict would lead to a violent riot where many innocents could die. Are such possibilities handled in any way, are there countermeasures against it, is there precedent for a case which was later overturned due to allegations of the verdict having been made for the above mentioned reasons?


3 Answers 3


The title question is overly-ambitious: it is not guaranteed, and nobody thinks that it is. The law does what is practical to achieve the desired result. Actual failure one way or the other is mostly irrelevant until a clear pattern to the failure is found, then there might be a legal resolution, but it might also require a political resolution.

One consideration is whether it is possible for a defendant to receive a fair trial in a certain jurisdiction. Generally, you are tried in the jurisdiction where the offense occurred, sometimes (rarely) the venue can be changed to a more neutral location. This consideration is significant in high-profile cases. For example, the trials of Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad took place relatively far away from the scene of the crime. The trial judge must weigh the arguments for an inconvenient trial location, and in this trial the judge refused a petition for a change of venue. The judge stated that "As far as change of venue, I do not think that that would give the defendant any kind of a fair trial beyond what we are doing here today. I don’t think there’s any place in the state of Minnesota that has not been subjected to extreme amounts of publicity on this case"

A second layer of protection is that prospective jurors may be excused. If a juror declares in advance (during voir dire or elsewhere) that the defendant is guilty, they will be excused for cause. The defense (or prosecution) also has some number of peremptory challenges – in this case, the defense has 5 and the prosecution has 3. In this category, a seated juror can be excused for cause (this happened), when a juror admits that some news e.g. about the city's settlement had prejudiced the juror. Also related to juror selection is that juror must swear to follow the law in reaching a decision.

The third layer of protection is limiting testimony, for instance if the prosecution were to ask a witness something like "Won't there be major riots if Chauvin isn't convicted?", the defense would presumably object and prevent such testimony from getting uttered in the first place, or getting officially stricken if it somehow gets out.

The fourth layer of protection is that jurors are meticulously instructed as to the logic of decision-making. If you can find a copy, there are here (MN does not make the instructions freely publicly available). Here are the California instructions.

Additionally, a judge might attempt to limit what can be said by the media, or might sequester the jury so that they cannot hear any such publicity during the trial (but that's impossible for pre-trial publicity).

Another layer is that a mistrial can be declared. However, what goes on in the jury room is in a black box that the legal system cannot generally touch. If a juror was paid off, that could be touched by the legal system, but there is nothing that can be done if it turns out that a juror has a bias in favor of the prosecution, despite the premise of neutrality.

Finally, if the facts are so clear, a judge might overturn a conviction on the grounds that a reasonable jury could not reach that conclusion, based on the facts and the law.

By "final" I ignore the possibility of an appeal.

  • 1
    Thanks for pointing out the inconsistency in the title, I corrected it. Of course nothing can be 100% "guaranteed", but a list of safeguards is a perfect answer to such a question.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 17:53

If there was, it was not in the case of a Not Guilty verdict as those are not open to appeal and thus overturning. As a matter of course, in appeals, a trial is not overturned but rather vacated or declared a mistrial. The essential effect is that that the appeals court decides that due to a matter of law, the legal system is to pretend that the original trial never happened and a new trial must be heard or the prosecution must drop the case and treat like it was not bringing charges. This doesn't violate Double Jeopardy as the defendant is the only person who can initiate appeals, thus by appealing is agreeing to waive a right to Double Jeopardy because the first time was not a fair trial.

Jury Bias is grounds for declaring a mistrial and after trial statements of the jurors are watched by defense teams for such statements. If the appellant court agrees, a new trial is granted (provided the prosecution wants to try again... A second trial is difficult for the prosecution because they brought their full strategy to bear with their first attempt... they can modify it, but the defense knows what they are going to argue. At best, they can catch mistakes made on their part.).

Beyond that, the first defense against this behavior is, funnily enough, the other jurors. Studies have shown Jurors do take their duty seriously, and a biased individual does get their biases called out by other juror when they are unrelated to the evidence. The 12 juror's are catching each other and bring up their own views of what the evidence says. It often takes multiple rounds of voting to get a verdict back and this can span days at a time. In addition, a guilty verdict usually requires either unanimous vote or at the least a more than 2/3rds vote in favor (9 out of 12, though this tends to be as high as 10/11 out of 12 in some jurisdictions) and while Not Guilty requires similar numbers, a mere simple majority (7/5 split) with no way of swaying any votes results in a mistrial (and until Prosecution files for a second trial with a new Jury, the defendant is free... and it's especially rare that the prosecution refiles at this time, since their best made case wasn't convincing everyone and a second try likely won't either).


There is no way to guarantee that a jury will not make a decision based on prejudice, or on widespread public feeling, or on the heinous nature of a crime where the evidence against the accused is weak, or on some other basis beyond the evidence in the case.

US courts have several mechanisms for handling such cases, but they are not perfect, and there are some well-known jury verdicts generally considered to have been miscarriages of justice. For example, the 1931 trial of the so-called "Scottsboro_Boys" is generally considered to have been influenced by racial prejudice, by local prejudice against people from other areas, and by then-current procedure which did not provide a lawyer for the defendants. The trial verdicts were eventually overturned by the US Supreme court. Many other such cases might be cited. In some cases verdicts have been challenged on the ground that juries acted in fear of riots, and a verdict could be overturned on appeal on such a basis.

US courts deal with such issues by:

  • Moving trials so that they are in areas where there has been less publicity and less local feeling;
  • Questioning potential jurors as to their ability to decide the case solely upon the evidence presented in court;
  • Excluding from evidence images and statements considered "inflammatory" and not highly important to determining the correct outcome;
  • Restricting pre-trial publicity;
  • Sequestering the jury; that is confining them during the trial so that they do not see news reports or have contacts that might influence them; and
  • Later review of a verdict by a Judge, who may discard a verdict which no "reasonable jury" could have produced on the evidence presented.

Which of these measures to use in a given case, and exactly how, is a matter left up to the Judge for the most part. There is no way to be absolutely sure that such measures will result in a just verdict, but the US system is based on the premise that in the vast majority of cases verdicts will be just. Some people do not accept this premise, but that is how the US criminal system works.

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