Criminal Law Update: Major change in law concerning jury punishment in Virginia

For decades now, Virginia has divided jury trials into two parts—first the “guilt” phase, where the members of a jury decide whether someone is actually guilty of an offense. The second was the “punishment” phase, where jurors would hear evidence of an accused’s prior convictions, the impact of the crime on the victim, and evidence from the defendant in mitigation. What jurors would not hear, though, during the guilt phase was how long a punishment they would have to impose before finding someone guilty.

 This led to some obvious cases of “buyer’s remorse” amongst jurors: thinking a case was very easy to decide, they would quickly find someone guilty, then discover that a relatively minor crime results in punishment far in excess of what they had intended to impose. Longstanding precedent from the Supreme Court of Virginia had held that the parties were not permitted to tell the venire what the range of punishment was before finding the person guilty.

 However, the General Assembly passed HB100, and Governor Northam has signed the bill into law. Parties may ask the venire during voir dire questions concerning the range of punishment starting on July 1, 2020.

 This law does not make every case one that should be tried in front of a jury. Laymen still typically impose punishments far heavier than judges. But for cases where the punishment is far in excess of what most people would expect, a jury may very well benefit the accused.

However, knowing which cases are ones with such a disconnect between the offense and punishment requires judgment on the part of an attorney to recognize. If you or a loved one is facing a criminal trial that might potentially benefit from a jury, and you are in the Richmond, Henrico, Hanover or Chesterfield area, call the attorneys at Winslow & McCurry for a consultation at 804-423-1382 and we can help!​