Every day, Americans observe and participate in the judicial process by serving as jurors. A jury is a group of citizens empowered to judge both the law and the evidence in the case before it. Participation as a juror is a right guaranteed by the Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the United States Constitution. Potential jurors are usually chosen from voter’s lists, lists of licensed drivers or tax rolls; their names are inserted into a master list of jurors called a ‘venire’. The attorneys for the parties select the actual jurors who will hear a case. Jurors who are called to serve for the first time often do not know what is expected of them. This article will familiarize jurors with the process of jury selection and the function of the jury in the judicial system.
Where permitted by law and if either of the party has so opted, a civil (non-criminal) case will be tried to a jury. Defendants charged with crimes, i.e., felonies and misdemeanors are entitled to a trial by jury. Defendants in criminal cases can also elect to be tried by a judge (bench trial). Statistically, more defendants are found ‘not guilty’ by juries than by judges and accordingly most criminal cases are tried before juries.
FUNCTION OF THE JURY
The jury decides and determines all disputed questions of fact presented during the course of a trial; the judge will advise the jury what law to apply to those facts. In an automobile accident case, for example, the jury will decide who was at fault and then award damages to the injured party for those elements of damage that the judge instructs are allowable by law. In a criminal case, the jury will decide guilt or innocence and determine whether the prosecution has met the burden of proving guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ as defined by the court.
REQUIRED JURY DUTY
A juror who is called to serve and does not appear may be subject to criminal sanctions, including a finding of contempt and a fine. Federal and most state laws prohibit an employer from disciplining or discharging an employee because he/she has been called to serve on a jury. Once a juror has been called, he/she will ordinarily not be called again for at least a year or two. Jurors receive a nominal daily payment for their service- they are also fed at the expense of the government.
Excusal from Jury Duty
The law provides for the excusal of jurors on certain hardship grounds recognized by statute. In many states mothers of young children may be excused from jury service; in some states, doctors, lawyers, teachers and firefighters are also exempt from serving on juries. Medical or other emergency will generally result in a postponement (not cancellation) of service; being ‘very busy’ will not result in excusal or deferment.
Reporting for Duty
When a juror has been summoned for jury duty, he/she will generally report to a central reception area set aside for jurors at the courthouse. A clerk will thereafter summon groups of prospective jurors and take them to various courtrooms for jury selection.
Once taken to a courtroom, prospective jurors are ordinarily advised by the judge of the nature of the case they are being called to hear. Ordinarily, the judge will ask each juror certain background questions, including their names, addresses, occupations, and whether they believe that they can be fair and impartial to all sides to the lawsuit. The court will also ask the prospective jurors whether they agree to wait until the conclusion of the case to reach an opinion concerning any disputed facts.
When the judge has concluded his/her preliminary inquiry, the jurors are questioned by attorneys for the plaintiff (in a civil case) or prosecution (in a criminal case) as well as by attorneys for the defendant during a process called ‘voir dire’. Voir dire is intended to assist in determining whether individual jurors can be fair and impartial. The questions from the lawyers will address such issues as the juror’s prior jury service, any history of accidents or unsatisfactory experiences with the judicial system and any other matter that will help the attorneys decide whether to allow the juror to hear the case. The attorneys will not be permitted to be rude to members of the prospective jury panel. Jurors who demonstrate that cannot be impartial or have certain preconceived opinions will be excused from service.
Challenges ‘For Cause’
Both sides have an unlimited number of “challenges for cause”, that is, the right to excuse a juror who has manifested an inability to be fair and impartial.
The parties are also entitled to a limited number of “peremptory challenges”. Through the use of a peremptory challenge, either side can dismiss a juror for no cause whatsoever, but simply because they are uncomfortable with the juror. For example, the plaintiff in a personal injury case may elect to excuse a potential juror who has worked for an insurance company, even if the juror claims that he/she can be impartial. Generally, each side will have only two or three such peremptory challenges.
Oath of Jurors
After the jury selection process is complete and unaccepted jurors have been dismissed, the court will administer an oath to the 6 or 12 jurors who will actually serve- the jurors must swear or affirm that they will discharge their duties faithfully. One or two alternate jurors are generally also selected in case a juror becomes ill or cannot complete his/her jury service.
CONDUCT OF TRIAL
After the jury selection process has concluded, the jury will begin to hear the actual case. Almost every case follows the same general procedure.
Trial of a Criminal Case
Once a jury is impaneled and sworn in, the prosecuting attorney will make an opening statement setting forth the nature of the case and what the state expects to prove. The defense attorney can make an opening statement if he/she so chooses or can reserve the opening statement until the prosecution has rested its case.
The prosecution will then present its case-in-chief. The state’s case will generally include live testimony from witnesses, investigating officers and crime scene investigators. Physical evidence such as guns and blood samples may also be introduced. Defense attorneys may cross-examine prosecution witnesses. The defense is not required to offer any witnesses nor is the defendant required to testify.
The defendant under our legal system is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty (presumption of innocence). The prosecution has the burden of proving guilt to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt. After the prosecution is rested, the defense may move to dismiss charges by alleging that the state has failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the court denies this motion, the defense, if it chooses, can present its case in chief.
After the defense has presented its case, the prosecution has an opportunity to present rebuttal testimony and evidence. Rebuttal testimony and evidence is such that will impeach or disprove the defense’s evidence.
When both sides have rested (concluded their presentation of evidence), the prosecutor will deliver a closing statement (closing argument) summarizing the evidence presented during the course of the trial. The defense attorneys then have an opportunity to make their closing argument. Since the state has the burden of proof, the prosecutor will be given a final opportunity to make a rebuttal argument.
Trial of a Civil Case
After the jury is sworn in, the attorney for the plaintiff (party bringing the lawsuit) will make an opening statement setting forth was the plaintiff expects to prove. Unlike a criminal case, where the prosecution has the burden of proving their case ‘beyond a reasonable doubt, in a civil case, the plaintiff must prove his/her case by a ‘preponderance’ or the ‘greater weight’ of the evidence. The defense will also make an opening statement advising the jury of the defenses that will be raised during the trial and what issues of fact are disputed. After opening statements, the parties will present their case-in-chief through witnesses and other evidence. When both sides have rested, the plaintiff’s lawyer will deliver a closing statement (closing argument) summarizing the evidence presented during the course of the trial. The defense attorneys then have an opportunity to make their closing argument. Since the plaintiff has the burden of proof, the plaintiff’s lawyer will be given a final opportunity to make a rebuttal argument.
Charging the Jury
After closing arguments, the judge will “charge the jury”, that is, advise or instruct them regarding the law to apply to the facts. The jury is usually given a copy of the jury instructions to take with them to the jury room.
CONDUCT OF JURORS
There are certain rules that a juror should follow throughout the trial in order to be fair to all sides. During the trial, jurors should not talk about the case with other jurors until they retire to the jury room to deliberate their verdict. They should not discuss the case with other persons, or allow people to talk about the case in their presence. If a person persists, a juror should report the matter to the judge or a court official immediately. Jurors are given juror identification badges during their service so that no one mistakenly attempts to engage them in conversation regarding the case being tried. The judge may also instruct jurors not to listen to the radio, watch television reports or read articles regarding the trial. Even if the judge does not specifically prohibit it, jurors should not read or listen to news reports about the trial that they are deciding. There is no specific dress code for jurors. Needless to say, trials are serious affairs and courts try to maintain dignity and decorum- dress should be appropriate for that environment.
If the case is one that has generated a great deal of publicity or public interest, the court may sequester the jury, that is, prevent contact with others that may influence their verdict, by putting them up in a hotel room for all or a portion of the trial period.
After the jury has been charged, it will retire to a jury room to privately consider their verdict and select a foreperson to serve as spokesman for the jury. If the jurors have any questions, they will right them down in a message that will be delivered to the judge for reply. Jurors should be courteous and listen attentively to the opinions of fellow jurors when considering the case. Once the deliberations are completed and a verdict is reached, the jury will signal the judge and be returned to the courtroom to announce their verdict. All of the jurors must concur in the verdict; if they cannot decide the issues in the case, the jury is “hung”, and the case must be retried. The foreperson will give the verdict to the judge who examines the verdict to ascertain whether it is in proper form. The verdict is thereafter published and announced by the clerk of the court. The jurors may be ‘polled’, i.e., asked individually whether the published verdict is in fact theirs.
CONCLUSION OF SERVICE
After the verdict has been read in open court, the jury is discharged and is thanked for their service and performance of civic duty. The jurors need not speak to the attorneys for any of the parties after the trial is concluded- in many states, attorneys are ethically prohibited from contacting jurors without a prior court order.