The Jury System as Civic Duty in the United States

In United States courts, the jury is a system by which, in theory, defendants are given a trial that is fair and unbiased. The idea 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 American jury system has its direct roots in medieval England. As early as the 1100s, groups of 12 knights were assembled to resolve over land titles and taxation. The group of 12 evolved into a jury, which had the power to give testimony and ask questions of the accused and accuser, as well as decide the merits of arguments and evidence. The English jury system is considered an outgrowth of common law, a legal system that developed from the “common customs” of the kingdom. The link between the common law and the U.S’s present jury system can be seen in the fact that judges and trials often focus on the facts of the particular case in an effort to arrive at a fair result for the parties involved in the dispute. Over the course of the 19th century, judges came into the jury picture. They gained power to control juries and juries’ roles became what they are today- hearing evidence and deciding the guilt or innocence of an individual. Our current jury system has evolved greatly over the years. We have discovered both advantages and disadvantages of our system. We continue to build on our jury system in order to perfect the flaws that still continue to haunt our system.

“Juries are a vital aspect of the American justice system. They are the third leg-lawyers and judges being the other two- that make our trial system stable.” (Grey 2004) One main advantage to our jury system is the idea that each individual will be able to plead their cases in front of a group of their own peers. In general people do want to serve on juries. This is an advantage because without support from the citizens, our system would not run as smoothly as it currently does. Harris Interactive interviewed 1,029 adults from July 15-18 2004 (interview was conducted for the American Bar Association) in a poll regarding juries and jury duties. Three-quarters of people surveyed for the American Bar Association disagreed with the notion that jury service is a hardship to be dodged. More than 60 percent of those polled for ABA had been called for jury service. The poll found: 1) three in four people would prefer that their cases be decided by juries instead of judges. 2) About half believe jurors are treated well by courts, 3) nearly 60 percent look forward to jury service. Many Americans feel that serving on juries gives them a sense of civic duty. They feel as though they are contributing to our justice system in a positive way. Although they are sometimes controversial, the rights of accused persons are among the most important rights guaranteed all persons residing within the United States. The right to a trial by a jury of ones peers is the heart of those rights guaranteed to accused persons.

Along with the positive aspects of Juries in the United States also come some negative aspects. These include: jurors that do not take their civic duty seriously, juries can become corrupt, jury trials are expensive and time consuming, not all jurors have the abilities to understand the information that is given to them during the testimonies and jury profiling. These areas of our system continue to be addressed and improved on.

A juror’s competence comes into play when decisions have to be made about the trial. Opponents of the jury system argue that the judge- by training, discipline, experience and superior intelligence- is better able to understand law and fact than the laypersons drawn from a broad range of levels of intelligence without experience, and without durable official responsibility. In contrast, supporters of juries maintain that 12 heads are better than 1, that the jury as a group has wisdom and strength beyond that of individual members, that it makes up in common sense and experience what it lacks in training, and that it’s very inexperience an asset because it secures a fresh perception of each trial. An example of a juror that was in question to serve on jury duty appeared in Houston, Texas on July 02, 2004. (AP online). A legally insane Houston man who “gouged his girlfriend’s eyes with a steak knife” had received a jury summons. Nathan Campbell was acquitted in 1997 after a jury found he was legally insane when he attacked his girlfriend the previous year. Campbell had received treatment as in inpatient at the Kerrville State Hospital. In June 2003 Campbell was released from the state hospital after doctors said he was ready to live in the community again. Although the Texas code of Criminal Procedure lists insanity as an “absolute disqualification” for jury service, it also adds the statement that “both parties may consent.” Campbell’s lawyer stated that he did not believe his client would be chosen for jury duty, but that he is legally qualified to serve if he wants. As a society, do we want to have jurors chosen who are not capable of understanding the information given?

Although a jury trial is time consuming and expensive, in order to ensure that an individual gets a fair judgment, these are of our system needs to be completed. One way that the expense of a trial could come down is making sure that both the defense and prosecution are more prepared for their cases. There seems to be a lot of down time during trials that could be eliminated with proper time constraints used. The expense of a trial could be compared in some ways to the expense that we have when we convict an individual to our prison systems. We spend more on keeping an inmate in the system then we probably do during the trial stage. The trials also become very expensive when the appeal process is put into play. Individuals have so many appeals which become very costly. This could be cut down if an individual was allowed simply one appeal instead of the several that they use at this time.

Another area that has been a focus of controversy is the jury’s interpretation of the law. Critics complain that juries will not follow the law, either because individuals do not understand it or because they do not like it (which is sometimes known as jury nullification), and they will administer justice unevenly. With continued help from competent judges giving the jury instructions clearing and accurately, juries should be able to interpret the law. There are twelve juries who can help each other through this process.

Although Americans are for the most part proud of the established U.S. and state jury systems, their faith in them and desire to participate have declined recently. According to a poll taken in late 1994 by the Los Angeles Times at the start of the Simpson trial, 55% of Los Angeles County residents had only “some” or “very little” confidence in the jury system. In the same poll, more people, by 57% to 41% said that serving on jury was a “personal choice”, rather than a “civic duty.” Why have so many Americans lost confidence in their jury system? Most observers agree that changes over the last 40 years in the way trials are conducted, along with fundamental changes in U.S. society, have eroded people’s faith in the system. These changes, coupled with several high-profile verdicts, have left millions of Americans with the impression that the jury system is deeply flawed. Some of the changes that have occurred include: 1) Allowing many trials to be televised, 2) the increased complexity and length of cases, especially civil suits and 3) a general loss of public confidence in authority and a deep distrust of government.

Our jury system has drastically changed from years ago. Throughout much of this country’s history, juries consisted of white men only. But a series of court cases since the late 19th century helped create contemporary juries, which look much more like a cross-section of the U. S. population. Potential jurors are generally taken from voter-registration lists, while many states also use lists of registered drivers to widen the pool. The result is a jury pool that includes many more minorities and women. Many observers believe that a more diverse jury more accurately reflects community values. The other side of the coin, however, is the risk of racial or gender polarity on jury panels. Numerous juries have split along racial or gender lines. One example of this is the Erik Menendez trail in Los Angeles in 1994. In that trial, the six men on the jury voted for a murder conviction, while the six women opted for a less serious manslaughter conviction. The result was a hung jury and retrial. Jury-system critics claim that in a racially or sexually polarized environment, jurors will be tempted to decide cases based on their prejudices and preconceptions rather than on the facts presented.

In conclusion, most people involved with the jury system probably agree that the system as designed can work. As implemented, it’s not working to its full potential. Hopefully in years to come we will be able to smooth out the rough edges of our system and the jury will not be something that our community sees as a negative aspect of our system. There will be many changes that will come about that will help our system. Jurors will become more educated by the judges before going into deliberations, jury trials will possibly pay more so the jurors involved will not find jury duty such a financial hardship and the possibilities of jury tampering and jury misconduct will be eliminated as to ensure more ethical trials. Our jury system has grown considerable since the England times where juries were not as fair as they are today. Our juries represent our communities and this is the fairest way for an individual to receive fair justice. The other option of having a judge decide the fate of an individual does not seem fair due to the fact that twelve people can share opinions and ideas rather than having one person do this duty on their own.

Works Cited

Abramson, Joseph. We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy. New York City: Basic Books, 1995.

Bradley, Barbara. “Juries and Justice: Is the System Obsolete?” Insight on the News (April 24, 1995)

Poll finds Americans don’t mind jury duty. (2004). retrieved Oct 31, 2004, from

Man judged insane is called for jury duty. (2004). retrieved Oct 31, 2004, from Web site

Jury Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 28, 2004, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

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