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What is a Jury?

Updated on August 16, 2014

A jury is a body of citizens that is chosen and sworn to hear evidence and to make decisions based on that evidence. In the United States the two modern types in use are the petit (small) jury and the grand (large) jury.

The petit, or trial, jury decides disputes of fact in both criminal and civil cases.

The grand jury investigates possible criminal wrongdoing and hands down a formal accusation, or indictment, if it finds the evidence sufficient.

Photo credit: Image in the Public Domain


The petit, or trial, jury is a group of persons, traditionally 12 in number but increasingly defined by statute as six, that is sworn (jurati) to hear and determine the truth (veredictum or verdict) as to disputed facts arising in civil and criminal trials. In federal courts of the United States, the Sixth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution gives the right to jury trial in all criminal cases, and the Seventh Amendment gives it in all common-law cases, as distinguished from equity cases, where more than $20 is involved. Almost all state constitutions have similar provisions. Where the right to jury trial exists, it usually may be waived, and in fact it often is.

Method of Selection

At each term of court a group of citizens is called for jury duty. They are selected according to constitutional and statutory criteria, typical requirements being citizenship, local residence, majority age, good character, and ordinary intelligence. Some categories of persons are disqualified-for- example, convicted felons and insane persons. Others may claim exemption, among them government officials, medical personnel, ministers, lawyers, and sometimes day laborers and small businessmen. Still others may be excused in the judge's discretion because of ill health or hardship.

In some areas, including New York state, women traditionally have been excused on request. Selection of the jury panel normally is carried out by a jury commissioner, who may have some discretion in making up the jury list, for example, from voter registration or property owner lists. It is unconstitutional, however, to discriminate in jury selection on the basis of race or creed or economic circumstance, and such class-related lists as tax rolls are increasingly thought to be improper.

From the jury panel a smaller group is drawn by lot to be considered for service in a particular trial. In this proceeding, called voir dire ("to speak the truth"), these individuals are examined, ordinarily by the judge and by counsel for the parties, as to circumstances that might improperly have an effect upon their deliberations and decision-for example such factors as personal interest in the case, acquaintance with a party or his counsel, or inherent bias or prejudice about the parties or subject matter. Such jurors may be challenged for cause, without limit.

Additionally, each party also has a limited number of challenges without cause, called "peremptory" challenges, that may be used to excuse potential jurors on counsel's assessment of such factors as leadership, stubbornness, generosity, intelligence-and hunch. As jurors are excused, others are drawn to replace them, and the voir dire process continues until the required number have been chosen. Thereupon they are sworn, and the trial proceeds.

Limitations on the Jury

Although the jury's role and powers are considerable, they are limited by the judge's powers. He determines what evidence may be presented to the jury. He excludes irrelevant matter and suppresses appeals to sympathy and prejudice. He differentiates matters of fact, which are for the jury to determine, from matters of law, which are in the judge's province.

Weight of evidence and credibility of witnesses are questions for the jury, though some jurisdictions allow the judge to summarize the evidence, and others permit him to comment on it.

Moreover, the jury is deemed to have no role in cases where, by the application of rather technical standards, the judge determines that there is no genuine issue to be placed before the jury. In such circumstance in a civil case, he may direct a verdict before the jury has begun to deliberate, set aside a verdict after it has been rendered, or grant a new trial. In a criminal case, he may not direct a verdict for the prosecution, only for the defense.


The jury's verdict may be general or special. If general, the jury applies to the facts as it finds them the legal principles given to it by the judge, thus in essence deciding the ultimate issue of who wins. If special, the jury responds to particular and usually narrow fact questions formulated by the judge, who then applies the law to the facts as determined by the jury. In criminal cases, there is only a general verdict, with the jury determining guilt or innocence.

Usually the jury's decision must be unanimous.

In the event of a "hung jury"- that is, where the jurors cannot agree, the case must be tried again before a new jury. Some states allow less than unanimous verdicts in civil trials and even in criminal trials where the offense charged is below the grade of felony. Only the final verdict of the jury is made public. The decision making process is conducted secretly and can be made the subject of inquiry only in extreme circumstances.

Have you ever been called up for Jury Duty?

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