The case was going badly for the prosecutor. One of her star witnesses had disappeared days before the trial began, another fell apart under cross-examination and retracted most of his original statements, and the primary investigating police officer alienated the jury by appearing arrogant. But just as the prosecutor was ready to give up, screams reverberated from outside the courtroom. A moment later, a bailiff came rushing inside. “Your Honor! Your Honor!” the bailiff shouted. “A spaceship has landed three blocks away and aliens are everywhere!”

Smiling triumphantly and without missing a beat, the prosecutor leapt to her feet. “Your Honor? I move for a mistrial!”

What is a mistrial? Most simply, it’s the cancelation of a trial in progress. Either side can move for a mistrial, and the judge can declare one at any point up until the jury renders a verdict.

Mistrials are rare. They result in huge additional expenditures, plus they represent wasted time for everyone involved. If the defendant has been kept in jail pending her trial, a mistrial means she’s going to spend even more time locked up. For these reasons, the system strongly discourages mistrials. But they do occur.

What could cause a mistrial? Well, rarely is it an alien invasion. But that could be a reason. Anything that makes it impossible for a fair trial to proceed could be cause for a mistrial. Potential causes include:

  • Natural disasters or other serious, long-term emergencies
  • Death of someone critical to the case, such as one of the lawyers or a juror
  • Juror misconduct
  • Serious errors in matters such as choosing the jury or admitting evidence
  • Errors that are fundamentally prejudicial to the defendant, such as the prosecutor making statements she shouldn’t
  • Jurors’ inability to reach a verdict

When I googled for recent mistrials, I found some interesting cases.

  • At a murder trial in Iowa, the prosecutor improperly informed a potential juror that Iowa does not have the death penalty.
  • At a trial in Texas for improperly carrying a weapon, a juror was assaulted (by someone unrelated to the case) outside the courthouse and was too distraught to continue.
  • In a robbery case in Virginia, technical errors meant people in the hallway—including witnesses—could hear testimony going on in the courtroom. Also, one juror kept falling asleep.
  • In a corruption case against the former LA County Sheriff, the jury was deadlocked after four days of deliberations.
  • In a California homicide case, a juror disregarded instructions and looked up the legal definitions of specific crimes.
  • In a Colorado homicide case, the prosecutor withheld evidence of a police officer’s misconduct.
  • In Kansas, a local news station aired footage of potential jurors in a murder case. Interestingly, after the mistrial was declared, a change of venue was also granted.

When a mistrial is granted, the system basically pretends as if the trial never happened. Double jeopardy doesn’t prohibit the defendant from being retried. The prosecutor can choose to drop the case entirely, but most often, a new trial will start from scratch.

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