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In trials, a group of people who are selected and sworn to inquire into matters of fact and to reach a verdict on the basis of the evidence presented to them.

In U.S. law, decisions in many civil and criminal trials are made by a jury. Considerable power is vested in this traditional body of ordinary men and women, who are charged with deciding matters of fact and delivering a verdict of guilt or innocence based on the evidence in a case. Derived from its historical counterpart in English common law, trial by jury has had a central role in U.S. courtrooms since the colonial era, and it is firmly established as a basic guarantee in the U.S. Constitution. Modern juries are the result of a long series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted this constitutional liberty and, in significant ways, extended it.



The historical roots of the jury date to the eighth century A.D. Long before becoming an impartial body, during the reign of Charlemagne, juries interrogated prisoners. In the twelfth century, the Normans brought the jury to England, where its accusatory function remained: Citizens acting as jurors were required to come forward as witnesses and to give evidence before the monarch's judges. Not until the fourteenth century did jurors cease to be witnesses and begin to assume their modern role as triers of fact. This role was well established in British common law when settlers brought the tradition to America, and after the United States declared its independence, all state constitutions guaranteed the right of jury trial in criminal cases.

Viewing the jury as central to the rights of the new nation, the Founders firmly established its role in the U.S. Constitution. They saw the jury as not only a benefit to the accused, but also as a check on the judiciary, much as Congress exists as a check on the executive branch. The Constitution establishes and safeguards the right to a trial by jury in four ways: Article III establishes this right in federal criminal cases; the Fifth Amendment provides for grand juries, or panels that review complaints in criminal cases, hear the evidence of the prosecutor, and decide whether to issue an indictment that will bring the accused person to trial; the Sixth Amendment guarantees in serious federal criminal cases the right to trial by a petit jury, the most common form of jury; and the Seventh Amendment provides for a jury trial in civil cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $20.

The modern jury is largely a result of decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has shaped and sometimes extended these constitutional rights. One important decision was the Court's 1968 ruling in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S. Ct. 1444, 20 L. Ed. 2d 491, which requires states to provide for jury trials in serious criminal cases. Prior to Duncan, states had their own rules; Louisiana, for instance, required juries only in cases where the possible punishment was death or hard labor. The Court declared that the right to a jury trial is fundamental. In cases in which the punishment exceeds six months' imprisonment, it ruled, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the protections of the Sixth Amendment apply equally to federal and state criminal prosecutions.

Defendants may, under some circumstances, refuse a jury trial in favor of a trial before a judge. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to a jury trial does not imply a related right to refuse one (Singer v. United States, 380 U.S. 24, 85 S. Ct. 783, 13 L. Ed. 2d 630). It observed that juries are important not only to the defendant but also to the government and the public. The government, it wrote, has an interest in trying cases "before the tribunal which the Constitution regards as most likely to produce a fair result." Thus, in federal cases, rules governing Criminal Procedure allow a defendant to waive a jury trial only if the government consents and the court gives its approval. States vary in their approach, with some, such as Nebraska and Minnesota, requiring only the court's approval and others, such as Illinois and Louisiana, granting the defendant's wish as long as the decision is informed.

In 2002, a Jury Innovations Committee established in Florida offered no fewer than 48 jury-reform suggestions designed to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. The suggestions included requiring jury instructions to be made clearer and to allow jurors to discuss evidence as it is presented, instead of after deliberations begin.

Jury Selection

Jury selection is the process of choosing jurors. Not all people are required to serve on the jury: Some individuals and members of some occupational groups may be excused if serving would cause them or their family hardship. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment merely requires that jurors be selected from a list that does not exclude any identifiable segment of the community (Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 95 S. Ct. 692, 42 L. Ed. 2d 690 [1975]).

Federal courts select grand and petit juries according to the guidelines in the Jury Selection and Service Act of 1968 (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1861–78 [2000]). Generally, most communities use voter-registration lists to choose prospective jurors, who are then summoned to appear for jury duty. This group of prospective jurors is called a venire.

Once the venire is assembled, attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense begin a process called voir dire. Literally meaning "to speak the truth," voir dire is a preliminary examination of the prospective jurors, in order to inquire into their competence and suitability to sit on the jury. Although the judge may ask questions, it is primarily the attorneys who do so. Their goal is to eliminate jurors who may be biased against their side, while choosing the jurors who are most likely to be sympathetic. Attorneys for each side are allowed to reject potential jurors in two ways. They may dismiss anyone for cause, meaning a reason that is relevant to that person's ability and fitness to perform jury duty. And they may issue a limited number of peremptory challenges, which are dismissals that do not require a reason.

The process of voir dire—especially in the exercise of peremptory challenges to custom design a jury—has provoked controversy. Defendants may challenge a venire, alleging discrimination, but such complaints are difficult to prove. Thus, critics of the selection process have argued that it skews the composition of juries according to race, class, and gender. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court held that juries need not represent a cross section of a community, but merely must be drawn from a pool that is representative of the community (Holland v. Illinois, 493 U.S. 474, 110 S. Ct. 803, 107 L. Ed. 2d 905). In 1991, it forbade prosecutors to use their peremptory challenges to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race (Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 111 S. Ct. 1364, 113 L. Ed. 2d 411). In 1999, the Supreme Court of Connecticut ruled that prospective jurors could not be dismissed solely on account of their religious beliefs, except when those beliefs would keep them from performing their duties on the jury (State v. Hodge, 726 A.2d 531 [Conn. 1999]). Along with other complaints—on issues ranging from efficiency to fairness—the decisions provided advocates of jury reform with further ammunition for their efforts to change fundamentally, and even to eliminate, juries.

Jury Size

Juries range in size according to their nature. Grand juries are so named because they are usually larger than petit juries, having from 12 to 23 members. Traditionally, petit juries have had 23 members, but the number is not fixed. In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the number 12 was not an essential element of trial by jury (Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78, 90 S. Ct. 1893, 26 L. Ed. 2d 446), and it has sanctioned juries of no fewer than six members in criminal cases (Ballew v. Georgia, 435 U.S. 223, 98 S. Ct. 1029, 55 L. Ed. 2d 234 [1978]). Parties in federal district courts, as well as in many state courts, can stipulate that the jury size be any number between six and 12. Commonly, federal district court juries consist of six persons for civil cases.

Jury Instructions

Throughout a trial, the jury receives instructions from the judge. The judge explains the relevant points of law, which the jury is bound to

accept and to apply. The judge directs the jury to disregard inadmissible testimony and provides guidelines on the way to behave outside of court. During the 1995 trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his estranged second wife and a friend of hers, for example, Judge Lance Ito issued daily orders to jurors not to discuss the case with anyone. Some instructions vary across jurisdictions and according to judges, such as whether jurors will be allowed to take notes during the trial; generally, they may not. In certain highly publicized trials, the judge may sequester the jury—that is, isolate its members in private living quarters such as hotel rooms in order to shield them from trial publicity. Violating the judge's orders can result in a juror being dismissed from the trial in favor of an alternate juror.

Jury Verdict

Following the closing arguments in a trial, jurors deliberate in private to arrive at a verdict, which is then reported to the court by the jury foreman or forewoman. Defendants in federal jury trials have the right to a unanimous verdict. This is not true in state jury trials, where the size of the jury determines whether unanimity is required: A 12-member jury may convict without unanimity, whereas a six-member jury may not.

In some cases, consensus among jurors is very difficult to reach. When jurors fail to reach an agreement, the judge may issue an instruction known as an Allen charge, in which the judge tells the jurors to continue deliberating and to listen carefully to each other and to be deferential toward each other's views. Continued failure to arrive at a verdict results in a hung jury, which necessitates a new trial with a different jury.

In criminal trials in most jurisdictions, the jury's job ends with the delivery of a verdict of guilt or innocence on every count pertaining to the case, and the judge determines sentencing. In civil cases, juries generally determine the amount of a damages award.

Jurors sometimes exercise their right to protest against a law that they consider unfair or unjust by voting "not guilty" even though the defendant is guilty of violating that law. This practice is called jury nullification and it goes back to colonial times. An example of jury nullification would be when a juror who believes that marijuana should be legalized votes "not guilty" in a case in which the defendant is accused of growing marijuana. The Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA), founded in 1989, provides information about jury nullification to prospective jurors who might not know that it exists as an option.

Further Readings

Amar, Akhil Reed. 1995. "Reinventing Juries: Ten Suggested Reforms." University of California at Davis Law Review 28 (summer).

Conrad, Clay S., 1998. Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

Leach, Brian E. 1995. "Extending Batson v. Kentucky to Gender and Beyond: The Death Knell for the Peremptory Challenge?" Southern Illinois University Law Journal 19.

Minnesota State Court Administration. Office of Research and Planning. 1993. Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System: Final Report. St. Paul.

Minnesota State Court Administration. Office of Research and Planning. Implementation Committee on Multicultural Diversity and Fairness in the Courts. 1995. Progress Report. St. Paul.

——. 1994. Progress Report. St. Paul.

Montoya, Jean. 1996. "The Future of the Post-Batson Peremptory Challenge." University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 29.

Sklansky, Joseph J. 1996. "Right to Jury Trial." Georgetown Law Journal 84 (April).

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