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Why do we have juries?

Jury History

Iloilo Jones (Executive Director of Fully Informed Jury Association) gives expert video advice on: Why do we have juries?; What was the first trial by jury?; What is 'The Jury Selection and Service Act'? and more...

Why do we have juries?

We have juries for a really special reason. We have people who come together- they don't know each other, they have no vested interest in the outcome of the case. But they come together and they sit down and they deliberate together. They listen to all the facts. They learn about the law that's being applied in this case, and then they go into a jury room, where it's private. And they have to consult with each other in the spirit of honesty and openness, and reach a verdict. And jurors have a conscience. And each juror can consult their own conscience and say, "How should I really decide in this case? Is this person guilty of doing something bad? Did they make a mistake? Is this a good law? Is it a good law, but is it being misapplied? Is this a person who should be punished harshly, and maybe sent to prison for what this person has done?" And if the juror decides that the person is not someone who should be sent to prison, if they think that it's a bad law- for instance, fugitive slaves, no one would send them back. That's a bad law to send slaves back. So they refuse to convict them. And so, jurors can do that. They can refuse to convict anybody. So everybody should want to serve on a jury so that they can make sure only fair laws are applied to people.

What was the first trial by jury?

Well we don't know for sure, but probably about 750 BC, in regions called Poles, they were city-states of Ancient Greece. And there they had actual juries that would try cases, and these were the landowners and the people in the communities. They would come together, and if someone was charged with something they did a lot more than juries do now. They would investigate the issues, the facts, they might go out and talk to people. But they were juries, and that was more than 2000 years ago that we know of, that there were juries.

What is 'The Jury Selection and Service Act'?

During the civil rights movement and were are lot of cases in the south where nobody are actually allowed in the juries. There were, and this is a problem not just in the south by the way but they are places where Native Americans were not allowed on juries, there are places where Japanese were not allowed on juries, all kinds of problems. In some areas, women were hardly ever allowed to serve on juries. So in 1968, the government looked around, or some of the leaders in government, and also with alot of pressure from alot of civil rights leaders, they had looked around and said we need to fix this so that there's a uniform standard for how juries are selected and how jurors are qualified. And so they said OK, everybody has to be eighteen years old, anybody who is 18 years old, has lived in the area for a year or more, this was a positive thing not a negative it wasn't to exclude people, it was to include people. It was to include them. If they are not a felon or they have not been accused of a felony and if they can understand English well enough to follow the proceedings of a trial, they have to be allowed to serve on juries. It does not matter what if they are male or female, black or white or yellow, it does not matter if your eyes is blue or brown they're qualified to serve on federal juries.

What are some legendary jury stories?

Some really good stories about juries in history actually have a lot to do with how we have some of the rights that are listed in our constitution: free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press. William Penn, who later founded Pennsylvania, was tried for preaching the Quaker religion in London. His jury refused to find him guilty because they thought it was a stupid law, which it was. It was a silly law, imposed the government, which at that time was a king. So they judge locked the jury up because they wouldn't find him guilty, went to the high court and they said, "No, jurors can never be punished for their verdict." So William Penn got out of prison, came to this country, which was not the United States yet, and founded Pennsylvania, and that's where we get freedom of religion. And that's probably one of the best cases I could mention.

Has the function of the jury changed over time?

The function of the jury hasn't really changed over time. It hasn't changed since the polis, since the earliest times. But there's always been a power struggle between government, which would like to not have juries there as a protection--a bulwark, if you will--between private citizens and government imposing its will upon private citizens and depriving them of their human rights. The jury has always stood between government and the individual to protect the rights of the individual, and that still holds true today.

Was there ever a time that jurors could be penalized for their decisions?

There was a time when jurors were penalized for their decisions. In England occasionally they were penalized for their decisions. But that was before. In the William Penn trial the high court ruled that jurors could not be punished, no matter if their verdict did not agree with the government judges told them to make the verdict.

What is the difference between the 'grand jury' and the 'petit jury'?

We have grand juries as the first line of the defense we talk about grand juries and petit juries. They are two separate lines of defense for private citizens. The government must first present it's case for a grand jury. If the grand jury decide there maybe a reason to take some one to trial, it looks like there is enough evidence to take them to trial they will indict. If the grand jury doesn't like the law that's been presented under which the person being indicted, if they don't think enough evidence to take it a trial the grand jury can return no bill. The petit jury on the other hand is next level of defense for individuals and that's when someone has already been indicted, so there is sufficient evidence, and they're brought to trial where they have the opportunity then, which they don't always have the opportunity in front of a grand jury. The defendant who remember is always presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, gets to stand up and tell the defendant's side of the story, even while the prosecutor is giving the government's side of the story. That happens before the petite jury of twelve people.

Why are there 12 people on a jury?

The roots of why we have twelve people on a jury go back to Biblical times for one, when there were twelve disciples. It was always considered to be a good number of people to make sure that all of the minority populations were represented. And that there was a wide enough selection from the community or the neighborhood that every opinion would be represented on the jury. It also meant that the rights of minorities were soundly protected because if there are only two minorities on the jury, and they refuse to convict, that person would have to be tried again. So you see, if there's only a few minorities and it's a minority on trial, this way that person can be protected from vicious prosecutions.

Why do some juries have six people, and some have twelve?

Today in the United States it's very often that people only get juries of six and sometimes in fact, they now say you're not entitled to a jury trial, and sometimes you will get juries of twelve. The jury of six was put into place because it's easier for the courts to manage six jurors, it's easier to gather up six people, doesn't cost the courts as much. But it's a very unfortunate opportunity for the government or for the prosecutor to take advantage of the jury because when you have six people it's much easier to persuade them, to put pressure on them to render a verdict. And again, if it's a minority person there's less chance that there's going to be minority representation on that jury than if there are twelve people from the community.

What are juror's rights?

Jurors have several rights. And jurors have a lot authority and they also have some obligations. Lets talk about their rights first. Jurors have the right to be treated with respect and dignity when they are in the court room, and not treated like first graders. Which is often the case. They have a right to have confidential information that they are asked to disclose to the courts held as confidential, and not made public. If they are uncomfortable answering questions, personal questions, in front of everybody they can ask the judge to go into chambers to answer those questions. And the jurors have the right to hear all the facts in the case. And to consult upon them among themselves and they have a right to know that they cannot be punished for their verdict. They also have an obligation to pay attention to everything that is said. And if they, if they aren't sure they can; then they should take notes. And that's allowed in most court rooms. And they have a duty to be respectful to all sides of the case and everything that's being presented. They must remember that the person is innocent until proven guilty. And they must also have a healthy degree of skeptism about the witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution. Because even though people take an oath. They don't always tell the truth. And we know that sometimes the evidence is also mistaken.

Does the jury have a political function?

The jury has a very specific political function. If you go back and look at history you can see that juries, when they refused to convict people who were harboring runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act, they helped to get rid of slavery in this country because the government couldn't enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Nobody would find anybody guilty. The jurors back then really knew that they had this power to protect human rights, so they wouldn't find anyone guilty. During prohibition, the jurors refused to convict people who were selling and manufacturing whisky. That helped to overturn prohibition. During the Vietnam Era, jurors refused to convict conscientious objectors so they could not be put in prison for refusing to go to Vietnam. All of these, by their refusal, caused the lawmakers of our country to have to go back and re-examine the laws they had passed and realize that they weren't supported by the people.

Why aren't jurors paid more?

I wish jurors were paid more. And jurors generally are not paid very well at all. Part of that is because the government has to pay them. And they really hate to give back any of our tax money once they get it from us, as you probably know. We have worked to get jurors better pay and it has been not only something that FIJA has worked for but the Senator for State Courts and some other jury rights groups, or court rights group in the country, are all working to get jurors better pay. Most of the laws about how much the jurors are paid were passed thirty and even fifty years ago and they've just never been updated, and unfortunately, juries don't have a big lobby to go in and lobby with the legislators to raise their pay, and that actually is the crux of it, we need to get more lobby to go in and get jurors' pay raised.

Will juries ever become obsolete?

I don't think they can be because they always will have a function, the same one that our founders intended, and the same one they have at least since the Magna Carta when it was ratified into law. And that the function of the jury is to stand as a protection between the individual on trial and tyrannical government prosecutions. And as long as we have government, and as long as we have humans, someone has to help protect the human rights of individuals. And I can't think of a better more elegant system than the jury system we have in place.

Why are juries mentioned four times in the Constitution?

Juries are mentioned four times in the Constitution, are actually mentioned once in a body of a Constitution and three times at the Bill of Rights for a very good reason. When our founders were putting this country together, they wanted the people from the government who supposed to protect and the people who'll be forming the government. They want the people to have a way to peacefully control the power of the government and the way they could do that, the best peaceful way that they could do that is to make sure that they have juries that would veto bad laws or unfair prosecution. And so they reiterate it again and again in the Constitution because to the founders this was one of the most important concepts that they have available to them as a peaceful means of defensive human rights.