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What is a Jury?

Updated on February 1, 2010

A jury, in law, is a group of persons whose duty it is to decide questions of fact in legal actions. The word comes from the Latin jurare, meaning "to take an oath," because a juror swears that he will give an honest and true verdict on the basis of the facts presented to him. The most common type of jury is the petit, or trial, jury that decides issues in both civil and criminal cases. A grand jury inquires into facts to decide whether they warrant trying a person for a crime before a petit jury. Less common today is the coroner's jury, which holds an inquest to examine deaths that occur under suspicious circumstances and decides whether there has been a crime.

Sir William Blackstone, a famous English jurist of the 18th century, said that "trial by jury is looked upon as the glory of the English law." Nations whose legal systems are based on English common law place great emphasis on the right to trial by jury. The U.S. Constitution, for example, guarantees the right to a jury trial in Article III, Section 2, as well as in the 6th Amendment and 7th Amendment. European nations whose legal systems have been influenced by Roman law tend to limit the use of jury trials to serious criminal offenses. In France, for example, there are no juries in civil actions, nor in criminal cases where the penalty on conviction is less than five years of imprisonment. Where major crimes are concerned, three judges and nine jurors sit together on the case. The French judges deal with matters of fact as well as matters of law and vote with the jurors on a verdict. Eight votes are necessary for conviction.

In the United States the jurors are the sole judges of the facts in the case, although in federal courts and a few state courts the judge is permitted to comment on the facts. In general, the judge is limited to stating the law. Practices differ from one state to another, but certain general principles of jury service hold throughout the United States.

Petit Jury

The trial jury is called petit, or petty, because it has fewer members than a grand jury. The number of members ranges from 6 to 12.

Veniremen, persons summoned for jury duty, must have certain qualifications. These vary somewhat from state to state. In general, veniremen must be between 21 and 70 years of age, be citizens and residents of the county where the trial is to be held, and be literate in the English language. In some localities, where names are taken from voter registration lists or tax rolls, the veniremen must be registered voters or taxpayers. Lawyers, clergymen, doctors, druggists, policemen, firemen, public officials, and some others are exempt from jury duty because of their professional duties. In some states, women may also be exempted on request. Except in special situations, the venireman is called up to serve for a specific period of time, usually about two weeks. He is generally paid a modest sum for each day of attendance. A person summoned for jury duty may occasionally be excused until a later date if good reasons for postponement are shown.

As a case comes up for trial, 30 or more jurors are chosen by lot to form a panel. The panel goes to the courtroom, and from 6 to 12 of its members are selected by lot as the provisional jury. After the jury has been seated, the nature of the case is explained, and the attorneys for both sides conduct the voir dire ("speak the truth") examination. Each juror is asked what he does for a living, whether he is related to or acquainted with the parties to the case or their attorneys, and other questions designed to detect bias. If a juror does seem biased, he may be challenged for cause and excused. A juror may also be excused on a preemptory challenge by an attorney. Each lawyer is usually allowed three to six challenges, for which he need give no reason. If the case is a very complicated one, jurors with special qualifications of intelligence or training may be sought. Such a jury is sometimes called a blue ribbon jury.

Once the jury is selected and sworn in, the trial begins. If the case is a civil suit in which one party is asking damages of another, the jury will be called upon to decide whether the weight of evidence is on the side of the person who has brought the suit, called the plaintiff, or on the side of the defendant, the accused person. When the jury's verdict is in favor of the plaintiff, it may also be the jury's responsibility to fix the amount of damages to be paid. In criminal cases it is presumed at the start of the trial that the defendant is innocent. The prosecutor, the state's attorney, must prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence shows the defendant to be guilty.

After listening to all the testimony and observing the witnesses, the jury is given instructions by the judge. He explains the laws that apply in the case, defines legal terms that may be unknown to the jurors, and makes clear what issues are in question.

In the jury room the jurors elect a foreman and under his leadership consider and discuss the evidence. In criminal cases in federal courts a unanimous verdict by the jury is required, but in state courts a jury's verdict need not be unanimous. The same rule is generally true in civil cases. Some states permit a specified majority of the jurors to return a verdict. When the jurors agree on a verdict, they return to the courtroom, and the foreman announces the verdict. The jurors are then discharged. In the case of a jury that cannot agree, called a hung jury, the jurors are discharged and the case is put back on the court calendar to be retried by a different jury.


The Normans brought the idea of the jury to England in 1066. The English for a time clung to the Anglo-Saxon system of trial by ordeal, in which the innocence or guilt of the accused was established by his ability or failure to endure torture. King Henry II of England brought the grand jury system into use, requiring that in every county 12 reputable citizens draw up for the judges a list of persons suspected of serious crimes. The accused persons were then tried by ordeal. In 1219, King Henry III commanded that accused parties be tried by a group of neighbors instead of by ordeal. This was the beginning of the petit, or trial, jury.

English settlers brought the jury system with them to the American colonies. The U.S. Constitution, as drawn up in 1787, guaranteed the right of trial by jury, but only in criminal actions. Many states hesitated to ratify the Constitution because jury trial was not guaranteed in civil suits. For this reason the 7th Amendment, requiring jury trial in civil suits where the damages asked exceed $20, was added to the Constitution. These constitutional provisions apply only to trials in federal court. All state constitutions make some provision for jury trials in state courts.

Grand Jury

Like the petit jury, the grand jury is chosen by lot from among qualified citizens. The number of members on a grand jury varies from state to state, but it is usually between 12 and 23.

The jury's duty is to investigate situations in which it appears that a felony, or major crime, has been committed. The grand jury meets a few times each week for many months, possibly a year or longer. The grand jury hears the prosecuting attorney's side of a case against an individual who he thinks should be prosecuted for a felony. The jury may subpoena witnesses and question them. When the investigation is finished, the jurors decide by majority vote whether the prosecutor has a sufficiently strong case against the suspect. If so, the grand jury brings in an indictment, or accusation, against him.

Under the U.S. Constitution a person may not be tried for a federal offense that is punishable by imprisonment, hard labor, or loss of civil rights unless he has first been indicted by a grand jury. In offenses against state law, however, there is a trend toward substituting a sworn statement by the district attorney, called an information, for the grand jury indictment. Some 20 states have given up the grand jury system.


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