Legalese 101: What is a Mistrial?

By Robin Enos on May 27, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We here at FindLaw know that legal jargon can be confusing. We hear people misusing legal words and phrases all the time. So we've decided to help you better understand all the legal phrases tossed around on Law & Order. Here is a new educational series we like to call FindLaw's Legalese 101.

Many of you have probably hear the term mistrial. But could you explain why a judge might declare a mistrial?

A court declares a mistrial when a legal irregularity has led to some reason why the trial cannot be completed.

To say it another way, a mistrial is a spoiled trial.

Many strange things can happen during the course of a trial, that can make the rendering of a just, proper verdict impossible.

We can all think of common-sense things that could happen. The jury foreperson goes into labor. Or one of the lawyers has a heart attack. Or the defendant tries to knife one of the attorneys.

In the first situation, the trial judge might dismiss that juror, and impanel an alternate. But in the other two, the court has little alternative but to declare a mistrial. That means the case has to start over from Square One. Usually before a new jury.

But most commonly, a mistrial results when a so-called "hung jury" cannot reach agree on a verdict. In a civil case, that means that a particular verdict cannot command 9 of 12 votes. In a criminal case, where the verdict must be unanimous for guilt, it means at least one juror would not vote to convict.

This episode of Legalese 101 focused on mistrials. In future installments, we hope to share some great knowledge of legal terms.

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