There are potentially two parts to a capital murder trial. The first is the determination of guilt for each of the offenses charged. The jury will listen to the evidence presented, arguments of counsel and instructions by the court. The jury will then deliberate to decide if the accused is guilty or not guilty of the crimes he/she has been accused of.
The District Attorney has the burden of proof of proving each and every element of each offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The verdict must be unanimous. If the jury finds the accused not guilty or guilty of anything other than First Degree murder, the work of the jury is over. That is because; sentencing for any offense other than Capital First Degree murder is left to the judge.
In summary, only if the jury finds the accused guilty of First degree murder, a premeditated, intentional killing, will the jury need to continue to sit for the second phase of the trial which is the death penalty phase.
If the jury finds the accused guilty of First degree murder, the jury will have only two choices, LIFE IN PRISON WITHOUT PAROLE or DEATH. During the penalty phase the jury will listen to additional evidence. The standards are different though. The District Attorney must first present evidence of AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES. These are the reasons why the District Attorney believes death is the appropriate penalty. The aggravating circumstances must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and the verdict must be unanimous. The defense will present evidence of MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES.
Mitigating circumstances can be anything that would make it LESS appropriate for the jury to impose a death sentence, or more appropriate to impose a life in prison without parole. Unlike the District Attorney, the defense does not have to prove mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense needs only to prove mitigating circumstances by a preponderance of the evidence. This standard is less then beyond a reasonable doubt and only means by the greater weight of evidence or in other words, evidence of certain facts exists and are ever so slightly more convincing than they don't exist. Unlike aggravating circumstances, which have to be unanimously agreed upon to exist, mitigating circumstances may be found to exist by an individual juror.
In summary, if the jury does not unanimously find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, the verdict MUST be life in prison without parole.
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