Typically, one set of jurors decides both the guilt and sentence in the two phases of a criminal trial. However, in some instances, one set of jurors is responsible for the guilt phase of a criminal trial, and a separate set of jurors is responsible for the sentencing phase. The separation of the guilt and sentencing phases is called bifurcation. Each approach can impact the likely outcome of the sentencing phase of the trial.
Bifurcation in criminal trials can most probably work to the advantage of the accused. If the accused is found guilty, then the jury will most likely possess strong feeling towards the accused and will want to punish the accused accordingly, thereby increasing the chances of a harsher sentence if the trial is not bifurcated. In a bifurcated trial, the accused is allowed a new jury, composed of individuals who were never exposed to all of the possibly gruesome evidence that was used to convict the accused, which will decide the severity of the punishment that the accused will receive. This starting anew creates an important dynamic because the new members of the second jury will only be informed about the crime the accused was convicted, but not necessarily told all of the shocking details of the crime that may incite the emotions of the new jury members in issuing punishment upon the accused. Undoubtedly, many people may become biased against the accused if exposed to all of the offensive evidence heard in the conviction phase.
Allowing a convicted defendant the chance to have a second jury decide his or her sentence often allows the defendant a better chance to receive a lighter sentence than the initial jury might have given. However, in some reported instances, jurors who have found a defendant guilty in the first phase of a bifurcated trial, later expressed dissatisfaction that the defendant had received a harsher punishment than expected during the sentencing phase of the trial by the second jury. On the other hand, some jurors have later complained that the person they convicted deserved a stronger punishment than received from the sentencing jury.
There are definite benefits to bifurcating criminal trials. Using a second jury is another way of making certain that a single biased group does not control an accused person’s entire fate. It is noteworthy, that in permitting bifurcation, the legislature and/or the courts are assuming that a jury which convicts someone cannot be fair when sentencing that same person. This assumption does ignore the fact that all juries can consist of people who have multiple points of view as to what punishment may fit the crime and that the people who have convicted the accused will most probably better understand the accused than the second group will. Of course, this may work either for or against the defendant.