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The American Jury System

The American Jury System

Randolph N. Jonakait
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    The American Jury System
    Book Description:

    How are juries selected in the United States? What forces influence juries in making their decisions? Are some cases simply beyond the ability of juries to decide? How useful is the entire jury system?In this important and accessible book, a prominent expert on constitutional law examines these and other issues concerning the American jury system. Randolph N. Jonakait describes the historical and social pressures that have driven the development of the jury system; contrasts the American jury system to the legal process in other countries; reveals subtle changes in the popular view of juries; examines how the news media, movies, and books portray and even affect the system; and discusses the empirical data that show how juries actually operate and what influences their decisions. Jonakait endorses the jury system in both civil and criminal cases, spelling out the important social role juries play in legitimizing and affirming the American justice system.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12940-3
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xix-xxvi)

    No person or committee constructed our jury system. The concept of a jury trial evolved over time, but largely without competition. Because we have nothing to compare it to, we cannot be sure the present jury system is in fact the legal method best adapted to modern conditions. If there is but one housing choice, that structure may evolve through the generations. A dormer may be added; a wall mended; rooms divided; plumbing changed. That evolution may not necessarily produce a successful modern dwelling. The result might be an elegant, functional, sturdy building, but it might also be a monstrosity...

  6. Chapter 1 Overview
    (pp. 1-17)

    The phrase “America’s jury system” implies that there is only one. In fact, America has many jury systems. Every state, the federal government, and the District of Columbia has its own courts, laws, legal procedures, customs, and practices. These multiple legal jurisdictions yield multiple jury systems. Even within a single jurisdiction the jury system can vary from one community to another. Moreover, systems for adjudicating criminal cases resemble, but still differ, from those used for civil matters.

    All these systems, however, do share enough essential characteristics to make it possible to talk about the American jury system. Nationwide similarities among...

  7. Chapter 2 Checking Abuses of Power
    (pp. 18-40)

    Juries have many functions, and the right to a jury trial became a part of our Constitution to balance and check the powers of governmental officials. This was explained in the Supreme Court case ofDuncan v. Louisiana.¹

    Gary Duncan’s criminal trial was seemingly insignificant. He was prosecuted in 1996 in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a strip of land rich in sulphur and oil that stretched a hundred miles from New Orleans down both sides of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. From the 1920s until his death in 1969, Leander Perez was, according to his biographer Glen Jeansonne, the...

  8. Chapter 3 Hammering Out Facts
    (pp. 41-63)

    Juries determine disputed facts. Did the defendant shoot the victim? Was the plaintiff exposed to asbestos at work? Whose car ran the red light? Although this function is at the core of what juries do, their ability to determine facts accurately is often derided. This derision is fueled partly by the fact that a jury is a group that makes a decision, and group decision making has weaknesses. If “group” is replaced with such a term as “mob” or “committee,” the problems and dangers of group determinations become clear. A group may diffuse responsibility, and its members may weigh the...

  9. Chapter 4 Juries and Community Values
    (pp. 64-74)

    Juries exist partly because they are surprisingly good finders of fact. Verdicts, however, often require something more than the simple application of law to determine facts. Often the trial decision maker must give specificity to a broad legal standard in order to resolve a dispute. This process should incorporate community values. Juries also serve this function well.

    The maxim that juries decide facts and judges decide the law implies a sharp boundary between “law” and “facts.” In this view, the contested fact is true or it is not. Furthermore, the law is precise, clear, and comprehensive. It requires no interpretation...

  10. Chapter 5 Abide the Issue
    (pp. 75-86)

    In Stephen Vincent Benet’sThe Devil and Daniel Webster,when Daniel Webster sets forth to battle the devil for the New Hampshire farmer’s soul, Webster asks for a trial. Mr. Scratch hesitates, and Webster shouts, “Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury. Let it be the quick or the dead, I’ll abide the issue.”¹

    Having the public abide, or accept, the issues resolved by our judicial system is crucial. A prime societal function of the court system is to provide for an orderly and peaceful way of settling disputes. The...

  11. Chapter 6 Jury Size and Jury Performance
    (pp. 87-93)

    In 1968Duncan v. Louisianaheld that the right to a jury trial in a criminal case is fundamental and that the same right applies in both state and federal prosecutions. The federal courts had but a single model for a jury trial. A jury consisted of twelve people who had to reach unanimity in order to render a verdict, as the Supreme Court had said two years earlier. The right applied to trials of any federal crime that was not “petty,” which was defined as a crime carrying a possible penalty of more than six months.¹

    The states, in...

  12. Chapter 7 Unanimity and Hung Juries
    (pp. 94-104)

    Juries traditionally have had to reach unanimous agreement to render a decision. But why? Most governmental bodies operate according to a majority principle and speak with multiple voices. Judges write dissenting opinions; losing legislators castigate the majority and issue minority reports.

    The unanimity requirement seems to have developed in fourteenthcentury England. The jury was to pronounce the truth, and there was only one truth. If all jurors did not agree to a verdict, then a truth was not being declared. Or as Leonard Levy states: “The rule of unanimity may have originated . . . because the test was the...

  13. Chapter 8 The Vicinage
    (pp. 105-113)

    The selection of a jury begins when people are summoned to the courthouse as potential jurors. Then a particular jury is picked from those who were summoned. Those summoned almost invariably come from the community of the trial, a requirement with ancient roots.

    Before the institutionalization of jury trials, dispute resolution in England depended on processes requiring supernatural intervention — proof by compurgation, ordeal, and battle. Compurgation required the accuser and accused to swear oaths. Compurgators, or oathhelpers, were enlisted in their behalf to vouch for these oaths. Their number depended upon the gravity of the case. If an accused could...

  14. Chapter 9 The Most Diverse of Our Democratic Bodies
    (pp. 114-127)

    Although our juries come from the community, historically not every member of the community could be a juror. Just as the right to vote was once restricted in this country, so, too, was jury eligibility. When the Constitution was adopted, every state limited jury service to men; all but one of the states required jurors to be property owners or taxpayers; three permitted only white individuals to serve; and one disqualified atheists. Roughly the same limitations were placed on voting. Soon, however, the franchise began to expand as property qualifications were dropped or diluted. Over time, jury eligibility followed with...

  15. Chapter 10 Challenges for Cause
    (pp. 128-138)

    The assembly of a jury pool representing a fair cross section of the community is merely the first step in selecting a trial jury. The actual trial jurors have to be picked from this group, and they are not merely a random selection from the jury pool. The lawyers and judge in each trial select a jury through the exercise of for-cause and peremptory challenges. This chapter considers the process of finding out information about prospective jurors, the voir dire, and the procedure to excuse jurors who will not be impartial—challenges for cause. (The next chapter will discuss peremptory...

  16. Chapter 11 Peremptory Challenges
    (pp. 139-155)

    Peremptory challenges are the last step in jury selection. They are exercised by the parties after the rulings on the challenges for cause. Peremptory challenges require no showing of bias. As long as they are not used to exclude potential jurors solely on the basis of race or gender, they can be used without explanation.

    Challenges for cause, because they help assure an impartial jury, are unlimited in number. Every biased person, no matter how many are revealed, should be excused for cause. The number of peremptory challenges, for obvious reasons, is always limited, and that number varies from jurisdiction...

  17. Chapter 12 “Scientific” Jury Selection
    (pp. 156-171)

    Jury consultants promise the use of social science methods to help attorneys win cases. They offer several kinds of services. Consultants may advise the attorney on what evidence to present and how to present it. Mock juries, for example, may be assembled to study the effects of different courtroom strategies. “Shadow juries” may be formed to watch the actual trial and to give their feedback on the proceedings. Jurors may be interviewed after verdicts to hone techniques for future, related trials. Such services have drawn few comments, but claims by jury consultants that they can help a party “scientifically” pick...

  18. Chapter 13 The Adversary System
    (pp. 172-184)

    The jury is a passive receiver of information. We may take this aspect of juries for granted, but it is one of the main characteristics that separates juries from other decision making bodies. If a child is thought to have eaten cookies before dinner, the parent does not determine the facts by merely receiving information the child chooses to present. Instead, he peers into the cookie jar to see if cookies are missing; he inspects hands and mouth for telltale signs of melted chocolate chips; he asks questions. If a plane crashes, investigators do not proceed solely on data others...

  19. Chapter 14 Presentation of Evidence
    (pp. 185-197)

    Attorneys cannot present any information they desire in any way they like. Ethical rules, for example, generally forbid a lawyer from presenting a witness that the lawyer knows is lying. Even without ethical strictures, however, the adversary system militates against using perjured testimony. The opponent has a great stake in exposing the lying witness. If that exposure succeeds, the party calling the perjuring witness will no doubt suffer greatly. As long as there is a significant chance that the perjury will be exposed, an attorney is unlikely, with or without the ethical rules, to call a witness knowing that he...

  20. Chapter 15 Instructions
    (pp. 198-217)

    Jurors do not search out the evidence; neither do they seek out the law that is to be applied to the case. Rather the trial judge instructs them about the legal principles that are relevant to the case. These instructions are a crucial part of a trial. Jurors may reach erroneous verdicts because they ignore the law or do not determine the facts correctly, but errors are inevitable if the jurors do not understand the applicable law. Even though comprehension of the judicial instructions seems essential, jurors often are unable to understand certain instructions. So what is the nature of...

  21. Chapter 16 Jury Verdicts and the Primacy of Evidence
    (pp. 218-232)

    It is not easy to determine how and why juries reach their verdicts. Jury deliberations, after all, are secret. Outsiders who could record the proceedings are not privy to this process. Furthermore, trials themselves cannot be subjected to controlled experiments. We need other methods to analyze how and why juries make their determinations.

    We can have access to certain kinds of information once verdicts are recorded. We can know conviction rates or how conviction rates differ between murder and robbery cases. We can find out what percentage of medical malpractice trials finds doctors liable or what awards are given in...

  22. Chapter 17 Jury Trials of Complex Cases
    (pp. 233-244)

    The fictional barrister Sir Ethelred Rutt, K.C., captures the views of many who believe that juries cannot decide complex cases well. He describes the complications of the case to the jurors: “[It has been a]ll about debentures and mergers and mortgages and subsidiary companies— twenty-five subsidiary companies on one side alone! Not to mention the expert evidence about the scientific stuff—all that fandango about the magnesium alkaloid and the patent vapour-feed. The chemists on the two sides flatly contradicted each other, and so did the accountants. I don’t believe there is an accountant on either side who really knows...

  23. Chapter 18 Jury Nullification
    (pp. 245-264)

    Juries have the power to disregard the law and acquit a guilty defendant, a power commonly labeled “jury nullification.” Jury nullification has produced fierce and frequent debate. Everyone agrees that juries have the ability to acquit a guilty defendant. Everyone does not agree whether juries have the right to do so or whether juries should be informed of this power. The roots of this debate extend back to earlier times when juries determined the law for themselves.

    When this country was founded, juries were not required to apply the law as the judge gave it to them; instead, they could...

  24. Chapter 19 The Finality of Verdicts
    (pp. 265-278)

    An acquittal, even if rendered in disregard of the law, is final. All other verdicts, however, can be appealed. Nevertheless, few appeals are successful for any reason, and even fewer win because the jury did not properly apply the law. Appellate court doctrines generally act to preserve the decisions made in the trial court, whether right or wrong, especially jury determinations. As a result, the jury’s verdict is almost always final.

    Only some erroneous trial court rulings can be raised as issues on appeal. Only rulings that were promptly and properly objected to at trial—that is, were “preserved”—can...

  25. Chapter 20 Reform
    (pp. 279-294)

    Many who look at the American jury system see an ungainly institution in dire need of reform, if not replacement. As this exploration attempts to demonstrate, however, the jury system works surprisingly well. Juries are quite able in finding facts; they inject community values into broad legal mandates; they act as a restraint on the powers of judges and prosecutors; their determinations are almost always accepted by disputants and society. That our jury system performs well, however, does not mean that reform efforts should stop. Surely the system can be improved, and many possible reforms and areas for experimentation have...

  26. Notes
    (pp. 295-330)
  27. Index
    (pp. 331-346)