One of the primary concerns of the founding fathers was preventing the United States of America from developing an oppressive government. Much of the Bill of Rights was born out of that concern. That is why the Bill of Rights includes prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right against self-incrimination, and of course, the right to a trial by jury.
The right to a jury trial plays a central role in the criminal justice system. There will be a jury in some civil cases, but the majority of jury trials are criminal trials. Hence, it's important to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and function of the jury in a criminal matter.
Role of a Jury: Background
It took the United States a while to recognize the right to a jury in all criminal cases, state or federal, felony or misdemeanor. The present state of criminal law is that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a jury trial to anyone facing a potential penalty of at least six months imprisonment. Also, in most states, the right to a trial by jury is not afforded to minors in juvenile delinquency proceedings.
It is important to note the difference between a grand jury and a trial jury. A grand jury decides whether charges should be brought against a suspect at the beginning of a case. If a grand jury finds that there is enough evidence to support these charges, there will be an arraignment. A trial jury hears the trial of the charges against the defendant in open court and decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
The Jury's Function
Jury service is a civic obligation and is required by every citizen of the United States. However, a jury alone doesn't guarantee a fair and impartial trial. The Constitution guarantees that members of the jury reflect one's "peers." The courts have further interpreted this to mean a fair cross-section of one's community.
Whether it's a criminal case or a civil case, jury selection occurs pretrial in a process called "voir dire." This is when attorneys and the judge may ask the potential jurors questions to ensure their ability to serve and remain impartial in a given case. Although attorneys are allowed to reject prospective jurors using peremptory challenges, they're not allowed to shape the jury panel in a way that may appear to be biased toward a certain race, age, or gender. The attorneys will also set aside alternate jurors in case a selected juror falls ill or cannot make the trial for some other reason.
During the trial, the jury will hear each side's opening statements, the facts of the case, the prosecution's evidence, and the defendant's potential defenses. One of the most influential parts of a trial is cross-examination. This is when the prosecution and the defense attempt to undermine the credibility of each party's witnesses.
The jury will then weigh the evidence during jury deliberations. It is the jury's responsibility to determine whether the evidence satisfies the charged criminal offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.
At the end of the trial, after the attorneys' closing arguments and the judge's jury instructions, the jury will leave the courtroom to begin jury deliberations in the jury room. The jury's duty is to gather to discuss the evidence. Once the necessary consensus is reached, the jury will render the jury verdict of guilty or not guilty in a given case. In some jurisdictions, the judge will appoint a foreperson of the jury. A foreperson acts as the spokesperson for the jury.
Whether the jury has to reach a unanimous decision depends on if the case is in federal court or state court. It also depends on whether the case is a criminal or civil trial. In criminal court, nearly all states require the jury to return a unanimous verdict.
Benefits of a Jury Trial
A primary strength of the jury trial is that it acts as a check to unfettered prosecutorial power. Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of power when deciding whether to charge a defendant with a crime. However, prosecutors understand that a group of individuals, entirely unknown to them, will be deciding their case after they present the evidence. Prosecutors typically don't want to waste time and resources on unreasonable charges in front of a jury evaluating their case.
Another strength of juries is that if judges decided every case, it could raise a number of concerns about fairness in the judicial process. For example, appointed judges might be beholden to politics and the people who appointed them. Additionally, elected judges could be swayed by public opinion in a given case. Jurors, on the other hand, aren't appointed and serve on a jury as part of their civic duties. In cases where public opinion weighs heavily on one side, they can also be sequestered to minimize the amount of influence exerted by the public or media on a given matter.
Limitations of a Jury Trial
Jurors are laypeople who are sometimes asked to understand complicated legal concepts and apply those concepts to the case at hand. This is not an easy task and can be very time-consuming. Because of both the time and complexity of some matters, it's not surprising to hear stories about jurors falling asleep or failing to pay attention throughout a trial.
If the jury unanimously agrees on the guilt of a defendant, the case is usually returned to the judge for sentencing. If the jury can't agree, they usually get an "Allen" charge to try again. An Allen charge is a specific type of jury instruction regarding their duty to continue to deliberate. A case can also end in a mistrial. In this case, the prosecutor can try the case again or decide not to proceed a second time.
If a party is not satisfied with the jury's verdict and feels that the jury did not rely on the rules of evidence to make its decision, it can appeal the decision to the appellate court and beyond, perhaps even reaching the Supreme Court. A party can also appeal if it feels that the trial judge did not instruct the jury appropriately.
Have Questions About the Role of a Jury? Reach Out to a Local Attorney
Whether you're in federal, state, or district court, having a case in front of a jury is a serious issue. No matter what criminal charge you're facing or what jury is convening to decide your fate, you should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney for legal advice. From opening statement to closing argument, it's crucial to have a knowledgeable advocate on your side.