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THE AMERICAN JURY SYSTEM

The jury system is at the heart of American law and our democratic system of government, enshrined in the Constitution. It transfers fudicial fact-finding power from elite individuals and groups to ordinary citizens. Jurors are the only members of the judicial process who are not legal professionals. The lawyers argue the case, and the judge rules on matters of law and what the jury may be allowed to hear and see, but the jurors maintain the ultimate power of deciding the facts: what is true and what is not true; who is guilty and who is not; who is imprisoned and who goes free. It is a tremendous amount of power and rests on a belief that victims and accused criminals will be treated most fairly when judged by the combined wisdom of their peers.

Origins of the jury system can be traced all the way back to the Greeks, although their concept of a jury, which comprised a group of several hundred men deciding a trial, is substantially different from the six- and twelve-member jury panels in contemporary America. The use of juries in deciding English cases continued to evolve from the time of William the Conqueror and reached a significant turning point in 1670, when jurors refused to convict William Penn and William Mead of preaching in public, even though the judge had informed the jurors that the defendants had broken the law. An appeal of a fine imposed on the jurors was overturned, establishing the right of jurors to acquit criminal defendants without risking punishment.

The English brought the jury system with them to the American colonies, and it was used by the colonists to defy the authority of the Crown. In one notable case, John Peter Zenger, accused of seditious libel for criticizing the royal appointed New York governor. was acquitted by a jury, defying the instructions of the court that truth was not a defense to such charges. Later, the right to a trial by jury was mentioned both in the Declaration of Independence and in two amendments to the United States Constitution. The Sixth Amendment states in part, "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 b crime shall have been committed." The right to jury trials in civil suits is addressed in the Seventh Amendment: "In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed 20 dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of common law." State constitutions included similar rights to jury trials.

The notion of what is meant by an impartial jury of one's peers evolved slowly in America. For most of our nations history, peers were considered to be white males. African-Americans were routinely excluded from juries by prejudiced local officials. even after the Supreme Court explicitly banned such practices. The result is that black defendants were far more likely to be found guilty by all white jurors, especially if the victim was white. Similarly, women were excluded from juries in most states well into the twentieth century. As recently as 1975, women had to volunteer for jury service in some states, where men were automatically drafted.

American juries today are much more reflective of American society. Juries are required to be drawn from a cross-section of society and are randomly selected from public records, such as drivers' license databases. Also, the Supreme Court has ruled that juries do not always have to include twelve members. Six-member jury panels are acceptable for civil cases and for some minor criminal cases. The jury system is costly and used less and less in both criminal and civil trials. At the federal level only about 10 percent of the tried criminal cases use a jury. Most criminal cases are settled through a plea bargaining agreement. On the civil side, only about 2 percent go to jury trial.

Sitting on a jury is perhaps the only time when most ordinary citizens can take part directly in the legal process, but the truth is most people do not show up eagerly when called for jury duty. The national rate of no-shows for jury service is estimated to exceed 50 percent, even though they can be cited for contempt of court. Nevertheless, the right to trial by jury is a basic and fundamental part of the American justice system and is likely to remain so.

 

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TITLE: Law and Legal Services at CitiMall.com Online Shopping Mall

Law Category: Prepaid Legal Services, Law , Legal, Attorney, Advice, Firm, Search, Attorneys, Lawyers, Power of Attorney, Durable, Forms

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