Right to Trial by Jury

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Background

In many jurisidctions the defendant has a right to a jury trial. A jury trial is a trial in which normal citizens, not judges, make findings of either fact or law that are binding on the defendant.

Trial by peers dates back to the signing of the Magna Carta (1215).

Jury trials existed, but have since been banned in India and Singapore.

Pros and Cons of the Jury System

Pros

The jury system provides a unique opportunity for citizens to participate in their government. The jury system also provides a rare check against excessive government prosecution. A jury is also an opportunity for a defendant to be judged by a group of their peers. Individual prejudice and irrationality is checked by the group, leading to fairere and a more reasoned administration of justice.

Cons

The jury system is extremely inefficient, costing a criminal defense system enormous resources. It dramatically increases the length of time and the cost of conducting a trial. Because of the concern that lay people cannot understand the law, jury trials require extensive controls to guarantee quality results. Many rules of evidence are constructed to prevent jury's from hearing irrelevant, imflammatory, or prejudicial evidence for fear that the jury will given improper weight to those types of evidence.

Jurors have no legal experience. Some have argued that they are easily manipulated by clever lawyers who can confuse the jurors with technical legal jargon.

United States

The Sixth Amendment provides for the right to jury trial:

[I]n 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.[1]

In the United States, the defendant has a right to jury trial for everything but "petty offences" [2] The United States Supreme Court has concluded that petty offenses include offenses for which the defendant can be sentenced to more than six months. The right to a jury trial does not hinge on whether the defendant is actually sentenced to prison or not. Both the defendant and the prosecutor must waive the right to a jury trial. In cases where both parties waive the right to a jury trial, the judge acts as the factfinder. This is called a bench trial.

There is no right to a jury in juvenile proceedings or military trials

The jury may have as few as 6 people and the panel must be selected from a group that is representative of the general population in which the defendant is being charged.[3]

Jury unanimity is not required for conviction. The Supreme Court has ruled that a 5-1 conviction was Constitutional[4]

Jury Selection

Jury is selected through a process called Voir Dire. Voir Dire refers both to the procedure for selecting jurors and also the procedure for determining whether an expert witness has the qualifications, education or experience to act as an expert. During Voir Dire both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are allowed to ask the juror's certain questions in order to determine whether the jurors could act in a fair and impartial manner.

A defense attorney may also use Voir Dire to intrudce her theory of the case to the jurors for the first time.

In order to select a full panel of jurors, the court typically pulls from 6-12 potential jurors from the pool of potential applicants. Each panel is questioned by both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney is given a limited number of peremptory strikes which they can use to eliminate a juror from the panel. They do not need to provide a reason for why they are exercising the peremptory strike. However, they cannot eliminate a juror purely based on race, gender or other bias.

Both parties may also challenge a juror for cause by demonstrating that the juror has a conflict of interest or cannot judge the defendant impartially for whatever reason.

The process continues until both parties have selected a full panel and several alternate jurors.

Jury Nullification

Jury nullification occurs when a jury believes a defendant to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but delivers a not guilty verdict because they do not believe the law is just. The states are split as to whether a defense attorney can argue for jury nullification during closing arguments.

Notes

  1. Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution
  2. Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66 (1979)
  3. Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975)
  4. Burch v. Louisiana, 441 US 130 (1979),