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Jury Trial: Process & Definition

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

Here, we will define a jury trial, consider the process of selecting jurors, and learn about the jury's responsibility in court. This lesson is useful to understand the American legal system for both criminal and civil cases.

Jury Trial

Would you rather have a jury that is composed of people like yourself or, perhaps, a professional jury where the members are highly educated in the law and serve on the jury as their job? On the one hand, a jury where everyone can serve is much more likely to be representative of the defendant, but on the other, a professional jury may be less likely to make mistakes or be biased against certain defendants. In the United States, we value the fairness of a jury selected at random from the public to decide our fate at trial. A jury of our peers, it is often thought, will be more fair to the defendant because he or she is like themselves.

In this painting, Examination of a Witch by by T.H. Matteson (1853), we see an artist's depiction of the Salem witch trials. You can see the members of the court, including the accused, her accusers, and potentially, a jury gathering to test the young woman's likelihood of witchcraft. American trials have since evolved, and today's they are conducted a bit different from this dramatic scene.

In the United States, a jury trial is any trial where the verdict is issued by a jury of your peers. All criminal cases and many civil cases are jury trials. Civil court has the option, if both parties agree, of a bench trial where a judge will hand down the verdict instead of a jury. In this lesson, we will discuss the process of selecting a jury and then explore the responsibilities of a jury.

Voir Dire

The process of choosing a jury is called voir dire. This process begins when a formal request is mailed to a group of citizens to appear in court on a given day. In small groups, they are called before the judge and attorneys of both sides. They are asked many questions about whether or not they can be impartial about the case.

Some potential jurors are dismissed because they are connected to the case somehow. For example, they may know one of the attorneys, witnesses, defendants, victims, or plaintiffs. Other potential jurors are dismissed because they are not suitable for the case; perhaps they feel strongly that all accused murderers should receive the death penalty, or they may have a strong hatred for people from a certain group that could bias their opinion about the case. Attorneys attempt to weed out inappropriate members until there is a panel that fills the jury and includes a few alternates in case someone can no longer serve.

Jury Responsibilities

Once a jury has been paneled, they will meet at the courthouse on the appointed day of trial. Many courts do not allow the jury to take anything into the courtroom, even paper to take notes. During the trial, they are expected to listen without reacting or saying anything. They are not permitted to discuss the case at night with other jurors or anyone else. After the trial concludes, they are provided with a copy of the trial transcript and can request to see any evidence again.

When the closing arguments are finished, the judge will issue jury instructions, which explain that the jury must apply the law fairly and impartially. The judge will carefully explain the law and will remind the jury that they are the triers of fact; in other words, through an evaluation of what they were presented at trial, they are the only ones who can decide on guilt or innocent. Occasionally, a person who is found guilty will appeal their case on the grounds that the jury instructions were biased against them.

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