The U.S. criminal justice system works by a process of jury trials in a courtroom. A jury is a group of generally six to twelve people. Usually, peers of the defendant, picked from a thorough selection process where both sides get to approve or deny each juror. The jurors hear all testimony from both sides throughout the proceedings and then make a decision. Generally, the jury’s decision is final but a judge can override it, and he or she sets the punishment after the verdict has been determined.
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The Role of a Jury
The role of a jury is to ultimately determine the guilt or innocence of the person charged with a crime. They are required to factor in all the evidence and in criminal cases must come to a unanimous decision. If there is any doubt in the mind of even one juror, then they cannot convict. The burden of proof is on the state to prove the guilt of the offender.
We have all seen plenty of court case dramas, and the fate of the nervous accused hangs in the balance until the jury reveals their verdict. One person on the jury is selected as the spokesman, and they deliver that announcement in court to the judge when requested. The process of considering all the evidence and discussion about the verdict is called deliberation. Deliberation takes place in private away from the courtroom proceedings.
In some high profile or capital cases where information is critical, juries may be sequestered and kept away from the public until the trial is over.
History of Jury in the US
Article III of the U.S. Constitution protects American’s right to a “trial by jury.” Additionally, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”
The first U.S. jury trial was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1630 when John Billington murdered a fellow Mayflower colonist. The jury made up of twelve “honest men” convicted Billington and sentenced him to death by hanging. Colonists also imposed strict penalties and huge fines for those that refused jury duty.
Every American must perform jury duty if they are summoned. According to U.S. law, anyone who is called to perform jury duty must do so unless they can prove they cannot, due to a medical condition, a family issue or work-related hardship. Failure to show up for jury duty is illegal and will result in harsh punishment. If someone ignores a jury summons, they will be fined and held in “contempt of court” along with an arrest warrant out on them. Jurors are paid a small stipend to perform their duties, but by law, their workplace must give them unpaid leave to fulfill their civic responsibilities. For many, if the trial lasts a long time, it could seriously affect their ability to earn a living.
Types of Juries
There are three types of juries used in the U.S. court system; they are grand juries, petit juries, and civil juries.
Grand juries are made up of a group of people that decide whether to not there is enough evidence (“probable cause”) to indict a person. If the grand jury finds that there is probable cause, the next step is an indictment, which leads to a trial. Grand juries operate privately with a judge, and the defendant and lawyers are not allowed to present any evidence. Grand juries usually have 16-23 members and are not open to the public.
Petit juries are trial juries with usually six to twelve jurors present for the entire process. Petit juries are used in all criminal trials, and they are open to the public except in special cases. Their job is to decide upon a verdict of whether or not the person is guilty of the crime, beyond a reasonable doubt. All deliberations of petit juries are held privately. The defendant, his or her lawyer, and the plaintiff have the right to present evidence and interrogate witnesses in front of the petit jury. When a jury cannot come to a unanimous decision it is called a “hung jury,” and the judge often will request a mistrial.
Civil juries do not decide the guilt or innocence of someone, but they hear both sides of testimony in civil cases and determine who wins and who loses. Civil trials are usually public affairs, and deliberations for the jury are kept private. In cases where a company’s or state secrets are involved, the cases can be closed to the public by the judge. Some examples of civil cases that a jury would decide the outcome for would be personal injury cases or someone suing a company. Civil cases involve one person or company who has a legal issue with another.
A coroner’s jury is a group of local individuals who are selected and perform a particular function in helping a coroner determine the cause of death for a victim. The coroner’s jury originated in England and may consist of 6-20 people. Much like a grand jury, the coroner’s jury reviews evidence privately but does not try cases in a court of law. However, a coroner’s jury may, after examining the evidence and determining a murder was committed, name specific suspects who will then be tried for the crime. There is quite a bit of debate over the qualifications of a layman on a coroner’s jury to adequately understand the evidence and apply it to the law.
Final Thoughts on Juries
A jury’s responsibility is paramount to our justice system in the U.S., and the role of each juror is not to be taken lightly. For our court system to work, all the pieces of the puzzle must come together and operate in unison. Juries are a significant factor in our process of democracy.