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United States Jury System
In United States courts, the jury is a system by which, in theory, defendants are given a trial that is fair and unbiased. The ideal is that twelve persons from the same peer group as the defendant will be able to deliberate without prejudice the position of the defense, and the outcome of the trial. In reality however it is often the case that jury members are unable to arrive at a logical and fair conclusion due to several factors beyond their control, including interference from court systems and the law.
The jury system originated in England on June15, 1215 (Arnet). The jury system at this time took the form of a Magna Carta signed by King John. The liberties and rights of the population of England were thus established, among which was the rights pertaining to a jury trial. Individuals were granted to such a right under common law, and jurors in turn were obliged to do much the same as today in the United States. In order to protect citizens from undemocratic government power and rights violations, jury members then, as now, were obliged to accurately and logically judge facts, justice and make a judgment for or against the defendant in accordance with such deliberations (Arnet). This is then the system that became part of common law court procedures in the United States.
The most common jury type by which trials occur is the civil jury. This is a jury of peers who deliberates regarding the above-mentioned issues of law, government and guilt or innocence (Stoicheva). This jury then needs to be carefully selected to ensure an unbiased outcome. Thus, demographic representation should be balanced to ensure that the matter is not considered from a prejudiced point-of-view.
The grand jury is selected on more or less the same basis as the civil jury, but its duties differ. Grand juries are selected to sit at federal indictments (ABA). Often these cases require intensive and long-term investigation, calling for a long-term commitment from the grand jury. Such cases include organized crime, drug conspiracies and political corruption (ABA). The term for such juries can be six months to three years. Some states have abandoned the grand jury system. The primary function of a grand jury is thus investigation and deliberation.
According to Holmquist, a jury is selected according to what attorneys believe is beneficial for their clients. Juries are thus indeed chosen according to a relatively biased paradigm, where demographic elements such as race do play a significant part. However, federal law prohibits the rejection of a juror on the grounds of observable difference such as race or gender. Ideally then, jurors are selected to represent the whole spectrum of the population of which the defendant is a part.
The selection process occurs by means of a number of names from databases including voter, license and utilities lists (ABA). The potential jury members thus selected are summoned to appear at the courthouse (Stoicheva). The jury is selected by means of questioning from the attorneys of both sides, and the trial judge. The answers to these questions are used to determine the potential bias of any jury member. The term for this process is "voire dire," which means "to speak the truth" (Stoicheva). In order to be selected as a member of the jury, both attorneys should accept the individual according to the criteria for jury members.
While current legislation prohibits prejudice in jury selection, it is also true that in the past potential jurors were dismissed, as seen above, on the grounds of not only race, but also class, gender and religion. Corrective legislation has however increased the number of potential jurors, as well as the legislation attached to their selection for jury duty (Stoicheva).
The role of the jury is therefore to ensure that democratic principles are upheld in United States courts. This is demonstrated not only through the function the jury serves at the trial, but also through its composition of various demographic groups. Perhaps currently more than any previous time in history, demographic balance has been achieved in the jury system.
Research has shown that the public prefers jury trials to determine important issues in court (Mansfield). This results from the public view of a jury that is made up of impartial citizens. In order to uphold this view, it is important that jury selections as well as instructions and the process of trial be conducted in such a way that truth and justice can prevail. The system thus has to be adjusted according to current laws. Ideally then, resources, disclosure and equality of aim will be provided to a jury in order to ensure maximum fairness (Mansfield). Sadly, however, the necessary paradigms are not in place to ensure the fair trial promised by the sixth amendment. Indeed, disclosure to the jury is often manipulated in a way not to optimize jury decisions and fairness, but to ensure continuing power to the very parties the jury is meant to protect the defendant against.
Currently, the jury system derives its strength from public opinion, which favors the apparently democratic process involved. Furthermore the system is firmly rooted in centuries-old history. The reality is that there are still serious flaws that hamper the proper functioning of the jury system as a guarantee for fairness and equality in the courtroom (Arnet).
The main problem, according to Arnet, is the fact that the information reaching the jury is restricted. This means that court personnel release only information deemed appropriate to the jury, rather than full information. It is therefore not possible to make a fully informed decision. This is true not only of information relating to the case on trial, but also to the sentence faced by a defendant in the case of a guilty verdict (Arnet). The judge and prosecutor are in control of how much information reaches the jury. Admissibility of evidence, and the degree of importance connected to such evidence, is decided by the judge. The jury is then dependent on a judge who is not necessarily impartial, undermining the fairness paradigm.
A further weakness connected to the jury itself is the fact that the jury is never completely impartial, regardless of all claims to the contrary. Again the offenders are those in power, the selection process and the instructions given to the jury. Arnet cites the jury summons as excessively threatening and not conducive to eventual impartiality during the trial. Those summoned are forced to appear by threatening with a $1,000 fine, imprisonment, or both. The fact that no choice is offered severely hampers the democratic process that should be served by the jury. Once selected, jury members are also obliged to uphold the principles of the laws relevant to the trial. Disagreeing with these principles is another democratic right denied to jury members. Another factor playing a role is the reasons for selecting or dismissing certain jury members for their logical reasoning faculties (Arnet).
Arnet examines the process of selecting a jury. Individuals are chosen after they meet certain criteria determined by the questions put to them by the involved parties. Practical reasons for which jurors can be excused include scheduling problems and financial issues. Furthermore the questioners often subtly attempt to include representatives of groups - racial or otherwise - that would be in favor of their clients. Finally, Arnet claims that lawyers do not favor engineers or others involved in occupations requiring routine logical thinking. This makes sense, since lawyers often appeal to the emotions rather than the reason of jury members to favor their case (Arnet). Thus, logical thinking would undermine this cause. Those who are left then do not truly represent an impartial group of people.
The jury is however not entirely manipulated by law officials. Indeed, in some cases the jury uses its power to favor a defendant despite the belief that the defendant is guilty. When a jury does this according to its own conviction, it is referred to as "nullification" (Stoicheva). This is a controversial issue in United States courts. On the one hand nullification is viewed as a threat to the rule of law. On the other, it is perceived that the jury is exercising its democratic right in the interest of democracy (Stoicheva).
The second case in which the jury willfully manipulates its decision in favor of a guilty party is jury tampering (Abramson, 201). This means that jurors are bribed to influence the rest of the jury to reach a verdict in favor of the briber. According to Abramson (201), this does not occur frequently in the United States.
The jury thus does have a certain amount of power in the verdict of trials, despite the obstacles faced in terms of official manipulation. This power has been shown in prominent jury trials of history. This includes the Salem witch trials in 1693. The trials were stopped as a result of jury verdicts in favor of the accused (Arnet). Fifty accused persons…[continue]
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