A jury is a group of one’s peers that are sworn to give a verdict in a legal matter based on the testimony presented at trial. The Constitution of the United States guarantees an individual the right to a jury trial should he face criminal charges in court. A jury is also used to render a verdict in many civil lawsuits in the United States. To explore this concept, consider the following jury definition.

Definition of Jury

  1. noun.  A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a legal matter, or to determine the true facts of a case or accusation.

Origin      1250-1300        Middle English jurie, juree


Jury Trial

When accused of a crime, an individual in the U.S. has the right to have his case heard by a judge, or to request a trial by his peers. The purpose of a jury trial is to provide the accused with a fair and impartial trial by members of the community who have no stake in the outcome of the case. In a jury trial, the panel of jurors hears evidence, witness testimony, and arguments from both the plaintiff or prosecution and the defendant. The panel then determines how the case should be handled.

In a civil case, this may include determining which party prevails, and what award should be given to that party. In a criminal case, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty of the criminal charges leveled against him.

Jury Duty

Jury duty is a compulsory service for all competent adult American citizens. Requiring that all Americans make themselves available to serve on a jury is necessary to guaranteeing people accused of a crime the right to a fair and impartial trial by their peers. In order to put together a jury of peers, the court system maintains a selection process, referred to as “jury duty,” in which people are called from a pool of individuals on a variety of rosters, including voter registration, department of motor vehicles, Secretary of State records, and even records from the department of public health.

Potential jurors are notified by mail of the date and time to report to the courthouse or other venue for jury selection. In a process referred to as “voir dire,” these individuals are questioned to determine whether they have any bias regarding the case, and either selected to serve on the jury for a particular case, or returned to the jury pool.

What is a Grand Jury

A grand jury is an important part of the criminal process, but it differs from a typical jury, sometimes called a “petit jury,” used in criminal and civil court cases. A prosecutor convenes a grand jury to determine whether criminal charges or an indictment should be brought against an accused person. A grand jury is typically reserved for serious cases. Where a regular trial jury is made up of 6 to 12 members, a grand jury often consists of 16 to 24 individuals. When a grand jury is used, it is the first procedure that takes place in a criminal case.

A grand jury typically serves for a specified period of time, often three to six months, and may determine whether indictments should be issued on a number of matters during that time. Like a petit jury, a grand jury reviews evidence, hears witness testimony, and otherwise conducts an investigation into a criminal matter brought to them by the prosecutor.

If the jury feels there is enough evidence to prosecute, an indictment is issued, formally charging the accused with the crime. If the grand jury does not find enough evidence to charge the accused, no indictment is issued, and the matter is either dropped, or the prosecutor must find other means to bring the individual to trial.

Jury Selection

When a case is called for trial, a group of potential jurors are selected and seated in a courtroom. The process of voir dire is then undertaken to choose jurors that are competent to serve on the case. During voir dire, the judge and attorneys from both sides question each potential juror to determine whether they are qualified to serve on a jury, whether service would cause undue or extreme hardship, and whether they have prejudices or other attitudes that may sway their verdict in the case.

Qualifications for Jury Service

To be legally qualified to serve on a jury in the United States, the potential juror must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen over the age of 18
  • Speak, read, and understand English well enough to understand all of the court proceedings, testimony, and evidence
  • Have no felony convictions (unless his or her civil rights have been legally restored)
  • Not be currently subject to any felony criminal charges
  • Have no disqualifying physical or mental condition
  • Reside in that judicial district for a minimum of one year

Voir dire in a federal case disqualifies anyone employed full time as:

  • A professional law enforcement officer
  • A professional firefighter or EMS provider
  • A “public officer” working in federal, state, or local government
  • Member of the armed forces, active duty

Undue Hardship

Many people feel that serving on a jury would inconvenience them, and because they would miss work for anywhere from one day to several months, it may be. While each jurisdiction maintains its own list of circumstances that may be automatically be considered a valid hardship, most courts consider each individual’s request to be excused from jury duty on a case-by-case basis. For the purpose of excusing someone from jury service, however, most courts recognize certain circumstances, including:

  • Individuals over the age of 70
  • Individuals who have served on a jury within the past two years
  • Individuals serving as volunteer firefighters, rescue crew, or EMT/Paramedics
  • Service would cause an extreme financial burden
  • The individual has an actual, necessary duty as a sole caretaker for a sick, aged, or infirm dependent

Juror Bias

Potential jurors may be dismissed from the jury pool if they show that they would be unable to put aside negative feelings about the law as it applies to the case, or if they would be unable to be an impartial juror. This may occur if the individual makes credible statements of bias, or if the judge or an attorney feel, because of certain personality traits or prior experiences, the individual would have a biased opinion.

For example:

Emily is called to a jury pool for a criminal case involving a burglary that resulted in the death of the homeowner. She thinks it would interesting to serve on the case, and has no extreme hardship that would keep her from serving. During voir dire, however, it is learned that Emily’s father is a retired police officer. Because the defense attorney feels that Emily likely grew up with a one-sided viewpoint learned from her father, he feels she would have a built-in bias, and dismisses her from the jury pool.

Jury Instructions

In a jury trial, whether civil or criminal, the judge must give specific instructions to the jury. This is done after all of the evidence and testimony have been presented, either before or after closing arguments. The judge will state the specific issues of the case that must be decided by the jury, define and explain any terms that are not familiar to the jurors, and discuss the standard of proof to be used in making a decision. He will make sure they understand how to apply the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal trials, or the “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in civil trials, whichever applies.

Finally, the judge will provide the jury with an interpretation of the specific laws that apply to the case, and that the jury is required to adhere to those laws in their deliberations, regardless of what the jurors think the law should be. Many states have standardized jury instructions to be used in various types of cases. In some circumstances, the attorneys in the case may request that certain other instructions be given to the jury.

Giving proper instructions to a jury in any trial is a critical step to justice. There have been many criminal cases in the U.S. in which an error, or misspoken phrase, has ended in an overturned conviction, or modified sentence on appeal.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Indictment – A formal written accusation, charging an individual with a crime.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Verdict – a
  • Voir Dire A preliminary examination of a juror by a judge or lawyers.