Opinions & Editorials

Foibles of modern American jury duty

Jury Duty: How it works and where it’s headed

By Diane Carter


The framework for the modern idea of a jury trial was crafted by Henry II in England, in 1166 A.D. Henry wanted systematic governance so he could fairly decide land ownership issues, which at the time were complicated, as there were no written titles to properties. He enlisted the memory of 12 local men as a basis for determining who owned what. This was the first use of an evidentiary system to ascertain justice, championing the discovery of factual legal evidence based on inspection and direct inquiry. Thus, the modern roots of jury service was born; using local witnesses with knowledge of particular issues.


Positive Benefits of Being a Juror

“Jurors are asked to involve themselves in some of the most personal, sensational, and terrifying events in a community,” says Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, reporter for the Atlantic.  


The benefit of this community engagement, is reinforcing the stability of values that engender greater cooperation locally and nationally.


Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of California, explains that “trial by jury is one of the fundamental ideas of American Democracy; serving as a juror reminds us that these ideals exist only as long as individual citizens are will to uphold them.”


Nevertheless, many people put themselves and their needs before the basic tenant of civic duty and public participation in democratic processes. Often citizens complain when they receive a summons to appear for jury duty.


However, service on a jury is a guarantee that your employer cannot hold you accountable for work missed while serving as a juror. Moreover, very few people are excused from jury duty because of economic hardship, as most employers provide regular pay during jury service.


Judges are also willing to postpone your jury duty for up to six months from the date of your original jury summons for reasonable cause. Students may even obtain a continuance for a period of time when they finish semester classes in certain instances.


Criticism of the Process of Jury Selection

Many critics say that the jury selection process tends to dumb down the quality of jurors who are eventually chosen. They claim qualified jurors are dismissed for having too much knowledge pertaining to a given case.  The same group of people claim that this sifting through potential jury candidates leads to a level of “low court room discourse.”


Attorneys and judges want jurors to be generalist and not experts in the content of the case they will try, expert witnesses are introduced into jury trials for this reason.


The law controls for the possibility of one person swaying the other members of the jury. While this can lead to a jury without the correct amount of knowledge about complex cases and subjects, it is nevertheless the technique used to control prejudice by persons who could otherwise taint the decision of others by presenting themselves as the expert in the deliberation process.


Generally, I think that jury trial by jurors selected from a group of one’s peers may have worked in communities from which the jurors came were homogeneous and where people having similar occupations and shared perspectives. In such an environment, simpler questions of the past could be solved with better outcomes.


However, in today’s multicultural and multinational society, it is often the case that there is a wide variation about how one interprets the facts given in a trial. Jury trials are in many instances more complicated, and since jurors are sole arbiters of fact, they may not have adequate background to decide some of the more complicated issues before them.


In serving as sole arbiters of fact in a trial, jurors are charged to listen to evidence from both sides without prejudging. After hearing evidence, the judge reads prepared jury instructions to the jurors.  Jury instructions applicable to the case are chosen by both the prosecution and defense. It is assumed that the instructions the judge reads will guide the jury deliberations in the direction favorable to a just outcome.


A modern jury trial is much more complex than historic trials of the past. They deal with more complex issues of law and evidence and include recent scientific knowledge that is now part of forensic science. For this reason there are now a number of judges who want to cut the use of juries for complex trials.


Supreme Court Judge, Peter McLellan of Australia claims that some of the contemporary criminal trials are too complex for jurors to decide facts in. An example of such a case is the Melham criminal trial involving the conviction of Melham for the murder of his parents. According to McLellan conviction in the jury trial hinged on forensic scientific evidence about the levels of carbon monoxide in the blood of the victims, generally a fact that none of the jurors knew about. Thus judges are beginning to realize that complex presentation of extraordinary facts involving knowledge hardly known to most people is cause for doubting the outcome of a jury verdict. Indeed Judge McLellan said, “As trials get longer and more complicated, most people go to much greater length to avoid jury service.”  


As with any human endeavor, jury trials are not always perfect and juries can make mistakes. Though judges remind jurors that they must decide the case in adherence to the law applicable, rather than to what they think. Judges do have some discretion to consider a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict when either the prosecution attorney(s) or defense attorney(s) bring such a motion. If the motion is granted, the judge will decide the case. However, the motion must be argued by counsel for both parties.


The future will bring new methods of trying facts and will amend some of the more disadvantageous aspects of being a juror. How change will evolve is up to judges, attorneys, and interested public groups to decide.


However, we have such a contentious social climate now, that it will take a commitment to dialog and study to improve on what we now expect jurors to sift through. The work of a juror as a sole arbiter of fact will certainly change especially where content of complex legal issues must be decided.


Illustration by Harlo Pippenger.
Illustration by Harlo Pippenger.
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