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What is the Role of a Jury in a Criminal Case?

One of the primary concerns of the founding fathers was preventing the United States of America from developing an oppressive government. Much of the Bill of Rights was born out of that concern, including its prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures, the right against self-incrimination, and of course, the right to a trial by jury. The right to a jury trial plays a central role in the justice system and it is important to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and function of the jury in a criminal matter.

Benefits and Limitations of a Jury Trial

It took the United States a while to recognize the right to a jury in all criminal cases, state or federal, felony or misdemeanor, but the present state of the law is that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a jury trial to anyone facing a potential penalty of at least six months' imprisonment. Stated differently, defendants are not entitled to a jury trial for an offense punishable by less than six months imprisonment. Also, in most states, the right to a trial by jury is not afforded to minors in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

A primary strength of the jury trial is that it acts as a check to unfettered prosecutorial power. Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of power when deciding whether to charge a defendant with a crime, as well as what charges to bring. However, they must make this charging decision understanding that a group of individuals, entirely unknown to them, will be deciding their case after they present the evidence. Prosecutors typically do not want to waste time and resources on unreasonable charges in front of a jury evaluating their case.

Another strength of juries is that, if judges decided every case, it could raise a number of concerns about fairness in the judicial process. For example, appointed judges might be beholden to politics and the people who appointed them. Additionally, elected judges could be swayed by public opinion in a given case. Jurors, on the other hand, are not appointed and instead serve on a jury as part of their civic duties. In cases where public opinion weighs heavily on one side, they can also be sequestered to minimize the amount of influence exerted by the public or media on a given matter.

On the other hand, jurors are laypeople who are sometimes asked to understand complicated legal concepts and apply those concepts to the case at hand, without letting emotion clog their decision-making. It's not an easy task, and can be very time consuming, especially in cases involving serious offenses. Because of both the time and complexity of some matters, it is not surprising to hear stories about jurors falling asleep or failing to pay attention throughout a trial.

The Jury's Function

Of course, a jury alone doesn't guarantee a fair and impartial trial. The Constitution guarantees a jury of one's "peers," which has been further interpreted by the courts to mean a fair cross-section of one's community. Juries are selected and empanelled before the start of a trial in a process called voir dire, where attorneys and the judge may ask the jurors questions to ensure their ability to serve and remain impartial in a given case. Although attorneys are allowed to reject jurors, with or without cause, using peremptory challenges, they are not allowed to shape the jury in a way that may appear to be biased (such as an all-Caucasian jury considering the case of an African American defendant).

The jury then hears the evidence against the defendant, potential defenses, and weighs the evidence to determine whether it satisfies the charged criminal offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. It is then the jury's duty to gather together, discuss the evidence, and, once the necessary consensus is reached, render a verdict of guilty or not guilty in a given case.

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