Jury Duty - Jury Service is a Big Responsibility
If you receive a notice for jury duty, take it seriously because it is a legal obligation. Ignore it and you are in violation of the law.
The right to a trial by one's peers, the right to a jury trial, is a basic part of the American system of justice. This right exists in both civil and criminal cases and is written into the United States Constitution. The Sixth Amendment provides for the "right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury..." The Seventh Amendment states: .., "the right of trial by jury shall be preserved..." So we have our sacred right to a jury trial embodied in our constitution. But how does that right show up in reality in courtrooms across the country?
How Many People Sit on an American Jury?
The answer is six or twelve, and if you think those numbers carry magic, they don't. The United States Supreme Court (Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78 (1970)) has held that a panel of six does not violate a person's rights under the Constitution, and that twelve jurors aren't necessary. A study done by the University of Glasgow concluded that twelve is not an effective number because some people are intimidated by a larger group, and that seven is a better number. ("The More the Merrier?", Mental Floss, November–December 2011, p. 74). So it's up to each state to decide how many will sit on a jury, with Congress making the call for the Federal Courts.
The Juror's Job
The jury's job is to find the facts and to come to a decision based on those facts and on the judge's orders concerning the law. The judge will "charge" or instruct the jury to come to a decision based on the facts as presented by the evidence. It may sound like this:
The defendant has been accused of first degree murder. The law defines first degree murder as the taking of the life of another, not in self defense, and with malice and premeditation. If you find that defendant's actions met that test, you must find defendant guilty of first degree murder.
Of course it gets a lot more complicated than that, and the judges charging instructions may go on for over an hour with the judge explaining the law of each count that defendant has been charged with or, in a civil case, each count of the plaintiff's complaint. In most cases the jurors cannot take notes but they can ask for a rereading of any of the judge's charge during deliberations. The long standing policy against note taking is based on the idea that the jury should pay attention to the evidence, including the demeanor of witnesses. If they're busy taking notes they can miss some important evidence. The judge will tell the jury to make a decision based on the evidence and the evidence alone.
Twelve Angry Men
The 1957 film Twelve Angry Men is the best portrayal of the drama of what can happen in a jury room. A young man was on trial for murder and if the jury found him guilty he would go to the electric chair. The evidence seemed simple and straight forward, and it appeared that they would come to a quick decision for conviction. One juror, played by Henry Fonda in one of his most memorable roles, started to carefully discuss all of the evidence and told his fellow jurors why he had a doubt and could not convict. The ensuing drama is why many, myself included, consider Twelve Angry Men the iconic drama of the jury room.
The Wrong Kind of "Evidence"
My late uncle was a lovely human being but he did have an annoying proclivity. He knew everything, or believed he did. I recall a time when he excitedly told me about a case on which he sat as a juror. He was excited because I was the publisher of The New York Jury Verdict Reporter at the time. This was a weekly publication that summarized civil jury verdicts. He couldn't wait to see "his" case in my publication. The lawsuit involved a woman who claimed that she tripped and fell over an electric box that was in the middle of an aisle at defendant department store. She suffered a nasty wrist fracture. Uncle explained to me, as he had to his fellow jurors, that no electrician in his right mind would ever leave a box in the middle of an aisle without recessing it into the floor. Therefore, uncle concluded, the woman was telling a story. "But uncle," I inquired, "didn't the evidence indicate that the box was indeed in the middle of the floor?" "Impossible," insisted uncle, "no electrician would do that." Uncle was a member of Local Three, the Electrician's Union. He succeeded in convincing his fellow juror's that they should ignore the evidence submitted at trial and make their decision based on his expert theory. They found in favor of defendant, and the woman went home empty handed. If plaintiff's attorney had heard about this I'm sure that he would have brought a motion to dismiss the verdict based on jury misbehavior, but even if he had, judges are reluctant to second guess the findings of a jury. I never published the case.
If you ever sit on a jury, please don't listen to a self appointed expert like my uncle. Listen instead to the instructions that the judge gives you.
Have you ever tried to avoid jury duty?
Think of Jury Duty as an Obligation of Citizenship
Many (most?) people, when they receive a notice of jury duty, immediately think of how they can get out of it. Many jurisdictions in the United States no longer allow blanket waivers for jury duty based on occupation. New York, for example once had a list of occupations that were exempt from service. Judith Kay, then Chief Justice of the New York State Court of Appeals and head of the New York judiciary, did away with this list in the 1990s. Shortly after she removed the blanket exemptions, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani received a jury summons. He responded as any citizen would and actually sat on a case. There are "hardship exemptions" that can be requested. A person whose occupation requires his or her personal involvement in a business and has no employees to "mind the shop," would typically be excused. Also, during voire dire, the questioning period where each attorney gets to ask questions of potential jurors, the attorneys will often (if they're smart) ask the jury candidate if , say, a weeklong trial would cause them a hardship. If the person honestly says yes, the attorney would be wise to let the person off the hook.
But if jury service would not cause you a serious hardship, by all means be willing to serve. The experience could be a fascinating one, and you will have performed one of the most important duties of citizenship.
Parts of this article were excerpted from my book Justice in America: How it Works, How it Fails.
Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran