A jury is a group of ordinary citizens who make the final decision, called the verdict, in some court cases. Such cases are called jury trials.
Jury trials are a fundamental part of the system of justice in the United States. The Constitution says that "The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury" and the Sixth Amendment amplifies this:
- 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, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
Most trials, of any kind, take place in state courts, and are governed by state law. Although the constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in criminal cases, the details are left to the states and vary from state to state. A jury often but not always consists of twelve persons. In civil cases—where no crime is involved—parties do not necessarily have the right to a trial by jury.
Role of judge and jury
In a jury trial, the general principle is that the judge rules on issues involving the law, but the jury decides on the facts. For example, suppose a car hits a pedestrian. Usually that's the driver's fault. But suppose this particular accident actually seems to have been caused by the pedestrian. The judge would study the particular law in that particular state for that particular kind of situation. Maybe that state's law says a pedestrian who is hit by a car is always entitled to damages. Maybe that state's law says a pedestrian who is hit by a car is not entitled to damages if it's completely the pedestrian's fault. Maybe the law says it depends on whether the pedestrian is at least half at fault. Most likely there are many different laws that apply. Most likely the law is complicated and requires a legal expert, like a judge, to figure out how it applies to the particular case. The judge will be listening to the lawyers on both sides. The lawyers on each side will do their best to point out any detail in the law that helps their client. The judge makes the final call on what the law means.
But it is the jury, not the judge, listens to the driver's and pedestrian's stories, listens to what other witnesses and the police said, and decides who is at fault, and by how much.
Juries are supposed to be impartial and unbiased. They swear a solemn oath, and most jurors take that oath very seriously. The process of jury selection tries to guarantee that juries will be unbiased. Of course, the lawyers on both sides are trying their best to make sure that the jury selection is biased—to favor their own client. The process varies from state to state and locale to locale. It consists of several steps.
Typically citizens are chosen at random, perhaps from the voting rolls. They are mailed a "summons" to report for jury duty. Jury duty can take days, weeks, or more. A juror must take time off from work. Sometimes jurors are paid a small amount but it is usually much less than they would have earned at their regular job.
Busy people may want to avoid serving. People in some professions, such as doctors and policemen, may be excused from serving, and there can be other reasons to exempt people from serving.
The people who arrive at the courthouse to serve are typically assigned to a jury pool, containing more jurors than the number needed for the trial. They are told something about the case. In a process called the voir dire, the jurors are questioned to see whether there are any reasons why they could not be impartial. For example, the judge might ask the jurors to raise their hands if they are friends or acquaintances of any of the people involved in the case. Those jurors would be dismissed, because a juror that who was a friend of a witness, for example, would be inclined to believe that witness.
The lawyers for each side also get a chance to ask questions. If a juror gives an answer that the judge agrees shows a lack of impartiality, the juror can be dismissed "for cause." For example, a juror that says he is against the death penalty could not be an impartial juror in a death penalty case. Each lawyer is usually also allowed a certain limited number of "peremptory challenges." That is, the lawyer can ask for a juror to be dismissed without giving a reason.
Juries are not used in all countries
Although Americans think of jury trials as fundamental to justice, they are by no means universal. They are characteristic of the British and French systems of justice. Jury trials were introduced in Russia in 1864, abolished by the Russian revolution in 1917, and reintroduced in 1993. Many Europeans find it baffling and inappropriate to hand over such an important step in the administration of justice to a panel of non-expert citizens.