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Juries

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A jury is a group of citizens picked according to law and authorized to decide a case. “Trial by jury” is one of the traditions of the American legal system.

A jury can be:

  • grand, that is, a body of citizens that determines whether probable cause exists that a crime has been committed and whether a formal charge should be issued;
  • trial ("petit"), that is, an ordinary jury for the trial of a criminal or civil action; or
  • special, that is, a jury ordered by the court, on the motion of either side, in cases that are unusually important or complicated.

Please Note: Many cases – especially civil cases – are decided by a judge sitting without a jury. For example, family law cases, probate, and small claims cases, cannot have juries. By law, only a judge is allowed to decide these cases.

If a civil case is eligible for a jury trial, it is generally the parties themselves who decide whether to request a jury or not.

  • Jury requests must usually be made in writing well in advance of the trial date – or even before the trial date is set. Deadlines are set in the state rules of civil procedure and in local court rules.
  • People selected as jurors receive a small amount of money for each day they serve, and in civil cases the parties themselves pay this money. In most court systems, whoever requests a jury usually has to pay a deposit of one day’s jury fees before the trial.

A local official, called a “jury commissioner,” is responsible for giving the court lists of qualified potential jurors. On the day a case goes to trial, a group of prospective jurors, selected at random, is asked to come to the courthouse for possible jury duty.

  • A pool of prospective jurors is brought into the courtroom, and a smaller group of 12 (or fewer) jurors is chosen at random and seated in the jury box.
  • Once the prospective jurors is seated in the jury box, the judge (or the judge and the parties) ask them questions to decide if each could be fair and impartial in this case.
  • Either party may ask the judge to excuse a prospective juror if there is a good cause. If the judge allows the challenge, that juror will be replaced by another prospective juror who will then be questioned.
  • When both parties have agreed upon a jury, the jurors are sworn in to try the case by the court clerk. Those not selected are excused.

Once the jurors are selected and sworn in, the judge will give them instructions that explain:

  • What the law is that applies to this case,
  • How they should evaluate the evidence that they will hear; and
  • Discuss the standard of proof that jurors should apply to the case – “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal case, “preponderance of the evidence” in a civil case.
  • The judge will also instruct the jurors not to discuss the case with people outside of the court, or with each other until it is time for their deliberations.

During the trial itself, the jury’s job to decide what really happened in this case. Each juror’s role is to listen to the evidence carefully and not draw hasty conclusions. The jurors usually cannot question the parties or the witnesses.

At the end of the trial, the judge will again give the jury instructions. He or she will usually:

  • Restate the issues in the case;
  • Explain what relevant laws that should guide their deliberations;
  • Remind them of the standard of proof that jurors should apply to the case.

After hearing the final arguments by each party and receiving instructions from the judge, the jury goes to the jury room to begin deliberating. Usually, the court provides the jury with written forms of all possible verdicts, so that when a decision is reached, the jury has only to choose the proper verdict form.

  • In most instances, the verdict in a criminal case must be unanimous.
  • In some instances, the verdict in a civil case does not have to be unanimous.

When the jury has reached a decision, it notifies the bailiff, who notifies the judge. All of the participants come back to the courtroom and the decision is announced.

  • In a criminal case, the possible verdicts are “guilty” or “not guilty.”
  • In a civil case, the jury will either “find for the plaintiff” or “find for the defendant.”

    • If the jury finds for the plaintiff, it will also usually set out the amount of money the defendant should pay the plaintiff for damages.
    • The jury will also make a decision on any counterclaims that may be part of the case.

After the decision is read and accepted by the court, the jury is dismissed and the trial is over.

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