Jury duty. Universally dreaded, with sympathy for a friend or colleague who has been called, communicated with a knowing roll of the eyes, and a story about how to get out of it. There is even a wikihow page entitled, "How to Get Out of Jury Duty." Yet, jury duty is regarded by courts and civics teachers as one of the most important civic responsibilities a citizen can perform; it has been a crucial part of our democratic system for over 200 years. The right to a jury trial is a fundamental right afforded by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A defendant charged with anything more than a petty crime, typically a crime with a penalty of more than six months of incarceration, has a right to trial by jury, made up of between six and twelve of his or her "peers." Jurors are reflective of the community at large; there is no education requirement, though jurors must be citizens, over the age of eighteen, and fluent in English, with few other restrictions.
Jurors are charged with deciding whether a defendant committed the crime of which he or she is accused, or in a civil trial, whether the defendant injured the plaintiff or otherwise failed to perform a legal duty, and if so, what the penalty should be. Sometimes jurors are called upon to determine the life or death of a defendant.
Jurors must be fair and impartial. In thoughtful deliberations, they can consider only the evidence presented to them within the confines of the jury instructions they have been given, and then apply the evidence to the law, relying on reason and common sense. Jurors must leave questions of the law for the judge to determine. There is no googling, tweeting, independently visiting the crime scene, or reading media coverage about the case. Jurors are not even supposed to discuss the case with other jurors as the trial goes on. This is to discourage the jurors from forming an opinion before all of the evidence has been presented to them.
The role of the jury is a complicated one, marred by cases decided by prejudice, and doubts about whether jurors are capable of adequately understanding evidence or making the required factual determinations. Individual jurors may be unpredictable, biased, or unwilling to deliberate thoughtfully. Nonetheless, in their purest form, the jury trial provisions in federal and state constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the limits of official power and reluctance to entrust power over the life, liberty, and property of a defendant to one judge, or a group of judges. In an ideal world, a jury trial acts as a defense against arbitrary law enforcement.
The trial of George Zimmerman brought, among other things, conversation and questions about the role and responsibilities of juries in criminal trials. In Zimmerman's case, there were only six jurors, the minimum number of jurors constitutionally allowed in a criminal case. The jury was made up of all females, five Caucasians,and one possibly Hispanic, according to media accounts. Perhaps it was not the most widely representative cross section of Americans, but a jury is not required to be of any particular make up, only that its members were selected pursuant to nondiscriminatory criteria.
In such a widely publicized and divisive case finding jurors that could be fair and impartial was bound to be a challenge. It is no less important, however, in any criminal case. Attorneys on both sides have different ways of trying to glean who may be more inclined to be sympathetic to their side. They might ask what the potential juror does for a living, if they have ever been the victim of a crime, or convicted of a crime, for example. Potential jurors may be stricken for cause when there is a legal reason the individual may not serve, such as being a relative of the defendant, counsel, or a witness. After that, each side has an opportunity to make preemptory challenges, effectively striking a potential juror without having to offer an explanation of why. This does not present either side with an opportunity to eliminate any potential jurors it thinks will be unsympathetic. For example, racial discrimination, or eliminating a juror on the basis of race because one side or the other believes a person of that race would be unable to fairly decide the case, is a violation of not only the right of a defendant to have a juror of his peers, but also of the juror. Furthermore, the harm inflicted by such action not only affects the parties involved, but also impacts the confidence the community has in the fairness of the system.
A potential juror’s ability to put aside personal feelings, experiences, biases and opinions, and to instead weigh the evidence and facts presented in a particular case is at the core of the inquiry made by the judge and attorneys during voir dire. Zimmerman Juror B29 spoke out after the verdict and explained that they, the jurors, had to put aside their personal feelings and look at the evidence. Though she explained the grief she experienced in coming to the non-guilty verdict, Juror B29 said there was not enough proof to convict. B29's statement made some viewers angry, and devastated the mother of Trayvon Martin, who clearly hoped for a different outcome. Zimmerman's attorney called her a "model juror." No matter which side you take, what B29 described doing is perhaps the most difficult and important part of a juror’s duties.
This past week, as an intern in a prosecutor's office, I sat through my first trial of the summer. The jury was unable to reach a verdict. After the trial, I was allowed to return to the jury room with defense counsel and the Assistant United States Attorney where the jurors agreed to speak about the case, and their deliberation. I was struck by how seriously the jurors took their role; the questions and concerns they had, made clear how closely they listened over the two days of trial. They knew the names of all the witnesses, and street addresses of the relevant locations. They wrestled with the same issues we anticipated might be the sticking points, and ultimately they could not overcome a few remaining questions. They mostly seemed to think the defendant had done the crime, but just needed something more than what the government had to offer to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
For all the popular groaning about the pains of jury duty, the majority of Americans still think that a jury trial is the fairest way to determine guilt or innocence in a criminal trial. Jury duty can be inconvenient, boring to some, and even feel like a responsibility you would not want to bear, but the right to a jury trial is a fundamental part of our criminal justice system and requires the serious and thoughtful participation of us all.
See Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 308 (1880).
See Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).
See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968).
Ballew v. Georgia, 435 U.S. 223 (1978).
Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).