Trial by jury has been part of our legal tradition from the time the colonists first settled in America. The colonists brought the jury trial with them from England, but it assumed particular importance when the colonists sought their independence from England.
Although judges were appointed by the Crown, jurors were selected by local authorities. Thus, the jury trial was one way to resist imposition of the law by the Crown and leave such decisions to local citizens. The jury trial also reassured citizens who were being prosecuted that twelve fellow citizens would decide their case, rather than a judge appointed by a ruler thousands of miles away.
In colonial times, the jury trial was seen as a bulwark against tyranny. As one U.S. Supreme Court Justice explained: ‘‘Providing an accused with the right to be tried by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge’’ (Duncan v. Louisiana 391 U.S. 145, 156  [White, J.]).
When the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he observed the importance of the jury trial. The jury trial, according to Tocqueville, served as a ‘‘free school,’’ teaching jurors important lessons about Citizenship and allowing them to participate in self-governance.
Today, the jury continues to serve as a free school. Service and voting are the main ways in which citizens participate in democracy. Jurors see the parties before them and know that their decision will have significance. Thus, the jury trial allows jurors to see democracy in action.
The jury trial is important not only for the lessons that it teaches jurors but also for the assurance that it provides a defendant that he or she will receive a fair trial before an impartial decision maker.
In criminal jury trials in federal courts and in most state courts, juries consist of twelve jurors. These twelve jurors are ordinary citizens summoned for the purpose of serving on a jury.
They do not know the parties, and they have no stake in the outcome. They will listen to the evidence presented at trial, and, eventually, they will enter a jury room where they will deliberate in secret. In most criminal cases, the defendant can be convicted only if the jury reaches an unanimous verdict. If even one juror disagrees with the other eleven, the jury can be declared a hung jury. The prosecutor must then decide whether to retry the case.
Even today, when we no longer have to worry about the tyranny of the Crown, we still have the protection of the jury system, including its protection against government arbitrariness or overreaching. The defendant charged with a serious crime knows that he or she will be judged by twelve citizens, who have no connection to the case and who will decide whether the government has met its burden only after they have heard all the evidence, deliberated in secret, and reached an unanimous decision.
NANCY S. MARDER
References and Further Reading
- Abramson. Jeffrey, We, the Jury. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
- Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 13th Ed. Mayer, Jacob Peter, and Max Lerner, eds. New York: Harper & Row, 1969, 1850.
- Yeazell, Stephen C., The New Jury and the Ancient Jury Conflict, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1990): 87–117.
Cases and Statutes Cited
- Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)
- Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975)
See also Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968); Grand Jury in Colonial America; Impartial Decisionmaker; Jury Trial Right; Jury Trials and Race; Public Trial; Speedy Trial; Trial in Civil Cases (VII)