What Is a Jury of Peers?

Judges can't dismiss jurors because of race or gender, but they aren't required to ensure the jury pool specifically represents the defendant's race, gender, or age. In practice, however, potential jurors often are removed for what appears to be their ethnicity, gender, or race, even though the removal is for other stated reasons or for no particular reason at all.

This article is all about the idea of a jury of peers. It's a big part of the justice system, coming from the Sixth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. We'll break it down, clear up some common confusions, and discuss constitutional rights when putting together a jury in criminal trials. Let's explore why this is important and the challenges it brings.

A Jury of Your Peers: The Basics

The phrase "a jury of peers" dates back to the signing of the Magna Carta in England. At that point, the provision ensured that fellow nobles tried members of the nobility rather than the king judging them. This phrase more accurately means a jury of fellow citizens. It is a crucial aspect of the Sixth Amendment in criminal law.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees several essential rights for individuals facing criminal charges. These rights include:

  • Right to a Speedy Trial: Defendants have the right to a trial without unnecessary delays.
  • Right to a Public Trial: The trial must be open to the public, allowing for transparency and accountability in the legal process.
  • Right to an Impartial Jury: Defendants have the right to a trial by jury free from prejudice and bias.
  • Right to be Informed of Charges: Defendants have the right to know the nature and cause of the accusations against them, ensuring they are fully aware of the charges they face.
  • Right to Confront Witnesses: Defendants can confront and cross-examine witnesses who testify against them, allowing for a fair and thorough examination of the evidence.
  • Right to Compulsory Process: Defendants can obtain witnesses in their favor, compelling the attendance of favorable witnesses.
  • Right to Assistance of Counsel: Defendants have the right to legal representation. One will be provided for them if they cannot afford an attorney. This right ensures that individuals have proper legal guidance and representation throughout the proceedings.

The Jury Selection Process

The state puts together a jury of peers by randomly selecting local citizens for the jury pool in criminal and civil cases. The attorneys shape the jury pool during the trial's jury selection, or voir dire phase.

During jury selection, the judge, prosecution, and defense question each prospective juror to determine whether there's anything in the juror's background that may prejudice their judgment.

The prosecutors and defense attorneys may then object to including certain jurors. Attorneys have two types of objections to potential jurors: challenges for cause and peremptory challenges.

While attorneys must have a legitimate reason to exclude a juror when making a challenge for cause, they typically don't need to give reasons for peremptory challenges. The court and case type limit the number of peremptory challenges.

In the past, prosecutors and defense attorneys may have used peremptory challenges to exclude jurors of the same ethnicity, gender, or background as the defendant. In several recent decisions, however, the Supreme Court has restricted attorneys' ability to use peremptory challenges based on a juror's ethnicity, gender, or other attributes.

Challenges Based on Race

While courts aren't required to include members of a defendant's race to create a jury of peers, attorneys can't exclude a juror based on race during jury selection.

In Batson v. Kentucky, James Batson, an African-American man, was on trial for burglary and receipt of stolen goods. The prosecutor in the case used peremptory challenges to exclude all four African-American members of the jury pool, effectively creating an all-white jury.

After conviction, Batson appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the removal of the black jurors violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court ruled in Batson's favor. It found that while a defendant has no right to a jury composed, in whole or in part, of persons of their race, the State can't exclude jurors simply because they're of the same race as the defendant.

Challenges Based on Gender or Age

Courts aren't only prohibited from removing a juror because of their race. They also may not exclude a juror based on gender. The Supreme Court has ruled that challenges based solely on the sex of a juror are unconstitutional.

While race and gender are off-limits, attorneys may use a few other traits as the basis for challenging a potential juror. For example, attorneys may use a peremptory challenge based on a juror's age. Some attorneys may feel that a juror who is either very young or elderly may have a more challenging time keeping track of the details in a complex case.

Types of Juries

There are several types of juries, each serving a specific purpose in the legal system. Here are some of the most common types:

Grand Jury

grand jury is a larger group convened to review evidence and determine whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges. Grand juries are typically involved in felony cases.

Petit Jury (Trial Jury)

This is the most common type of jury that people are familiar with. A petit jury is a group of individuals selected to hear evidence and render a verdict in a trial. It can be further divided into two types:

  • Criminal Jury: This jury hears evidence in criminal cases and decides whether or not the defendant is guilty.
  • Civil Jury: This jury hears evidence in civil cases and decides issues of fact, often determining liability and damages.

Federal Jury

In cases under federal jurisdiction, the court selects a federal jury to hear the evidence and render a verdict.

State Jury

In cases under state jurisdiction, the court selects a state jury to hear the evidence and render a verdict. State juries handle a wide range of cases, including both criminal and civil matters.

Special Jury

Sometimes, the court assigns a special jury to handle specific cases requiring specialized knowledge, such as complex financial or technical issues.

Anonymous Jury

When there are worries about juror safety or trial integrity, the court may use an anonymous jury. In this case, the court keeps the jurors' identities confidential.

Sequestered Jury

In high-profile or sensitive cases, authorities may isolate the jury from the public and closely supervise them to prevent outside influences during the trial.

Protect Your Right to a Jury of Your Peers: Contact an Attorney

Jury selection is a specialized practice, and raising practical juror challenges requires sophisticated strategies. An experienced attorney well-versed in criminal law can confidently select a jury. If you have questions about a case, hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows about jury service.

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