The criminal justice system in the United States is a fundamental element of the society which encompasses institutions of government and systems of practices directed to uphold social control, deterring, and even mitigating crime. The system further uses rehabilitation efforts and criminal penalties to sanctions those who violate laws of the land. A trial is a critical aspect of the justice system. It refers to a role of the courts and includes a formal and equally extensive examination of the evidence with the view to establishing either the guilt or innocence of a suspect in both criminal and civil proceedings. A prosecutor presents the evidence and witness accounts before a jury presided over by a judge (Burnett, 2003). Trial by jury has been part of the American justice system and seeks to enhance and expedite the dispensation of justice thereby ensuring respect to the rule of law.
Trials in the United States take two distinct forms including bench trials and trials by jury. In a trial by a jury, a body of ordinary members of the society convened to render an impartial verdict evaluates the evidence presented against a suspect and decides on either the guilt or innocence of the suspect. A bench trial, on the other hand, refers to a legal proceeding in which a judge or a bench of judges plays the role of the jury thereby evaluating the evidence and passes the judgment of guilt or innocence. In most cases in the United States, a bench trial refers to an administrative hearing relating to a summary offense to help determine the type of trial.
According to the American law, most criminal cases adopt the trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment to constitution presents trial by jury as a constitutional right for every citizen that no one can waiver without meeting specific requirements. Section twenty-one of the Federal Criminal Procedure sets out some of the terms that can enable one to waive their constitutional right to trial by jury. First, a defendant can relinquish a jury trial in writing. In such a case, the court must oblige and offer a commensurate trial possible by a bench (Younger, 1963). However, the government must consent to such an application, and a court approves. Government consent and approval by the court are the two subsequent conditions set by the section of the rules. As such, the government must evaluate the reasons for applying to waive a jury before approving the reasons. A court thus approves and institutes an appropriate form of trial. The Seventh Amendment of the constitution states in disagreements in common law, when the value in the controversy is more than twenty dollars, a person is entitled to a trial by jury (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013).
History of jury trial in the United States
History of jury trials in the United States dates back more than five hundred years to the signing of the Magna Carta by King John the first in 1215. The concept of the justice system borrows some of its key tenets from the document and has evolved by improving some of its key elements to becoming the modern-day trial by jury as described in the country’s supreme law. The Magna Carta of the great charter sought to protect fundamental civil liberties by guaranteeing two essential pillars of the contemporary societies. The two pillars included trial by jury representative governments. The document set stage for the development of the American legal system. It’s chapter 39, states, “No freeman shall be imprisoned, taken, outlawed, banished, or destroyed, in any way, nor shall he be prosecuted or proceeded against, except by the law of the land or judgment of his peers (Forsyth & Morgan, 1994). Early English juries composed of witnesses but later changed to impartial bodies from the community.
After the independence, the first constitution of the country under the Articles of Confederation did not provide an adequate description of the new nation. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 sought to draft a new constitution that would provide adequate coverage of the various aspects of the country including its judicial system. On September 12, 1787, the new draft permitted trial by jury, especially in criminal cases. Progressive legal improvements further shape the development of the jury trial throughout the history of the country. Article III of the constitution for example currently states that trials are by juries. The Sixth Amendment further expands the right by stating that the accused in all criminal cases enjoy a “right to both a speedy and public trial” consisting of an impartial jury drawn from the jurisdiction where the defendant committed the crime. The Seventh Amendment would later expand and guarantee trial by jury in civil cases as well.
Types of jury
The first type of jury is the petit jury charged with the hearing of the evidence in a criminal trial as presented by both the plaintiff and the defendant. After listening to the court proceeding, evaluating the evidence, and taking instructions from the judge, the jurors in a petit jury retire to consider a verdict. The verdict of the jury relies on the majority opinion which varies depending on regions. Nationwide juries are unable to reach a decision in a case only six percent of the time (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013). Some legal territories require a unanimous verdict while others require a supermajority. The size of a petit jury also varies. Thirty-three states have authorized juries fewer than 12 in criminal cases (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013). In serious crimes, the number of jurors is as high as twelve while most trials in civil cases require few jurors. According to the Sixth Amendment of the constitution, there is no set limit on the number of jurors a trial can have (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013). Juries that fail to reach a verdict are known as a hung jury. In six states the jury will pronounce the actual sentence (Garland, 2014).
Grand jury is the second type of juries in the United States. Grand juries operate in federal courts and select state courts. The jury determines if a case has adequate evidence for a criminal trial to commence. The jury examines the evidence as presented by a prosecutor. They also issue indictments, can investigate the alleged crimes. Traditionally, grand juries are larger than petit juries. They are also equally distinguishable. Grand juries can initiate proceedings without notifying a suspect. Similarly, can help file charges as sealed indictments against oblivious suspects. The police and other law enforcers can then use such indictments to make surprise visits thus minimizing the chances of suspect evading justice. Besides their primary roles of screening criminal prosecutions and helping in the investigations of crimes, grand juries in Florida and California among other states carry out policy audits thereby assuming the roles of the Government Accountability Office (Jonakait, 2003).
The final type of jury is the coroner’s jury which exists in some common law jurisdictions and helps facilitate the inquest by a coroner. In the United States, a coroner public official particularly an elected local government official charged with investigating ambiguous or suspicious cases. Coroners enjoy the freedom to convene juries on an optional basis as a critical strategy of increasing public confidence especially in findings that may elicit controversies. In most cases, coroner’s juries help avoid the appearance of impropriety by a government representative.
According to the American law, jury duty is compulsory, especially for qualifying individuals. The qualifications of a trial jury vary from state to state (Garland, 2014). A jury is an impartial committee that can access the evidence and reach a verdict. Some of the key requirements for individuals who serve as jury include an affluent understanding of language and a degree of neutrality needed to assess the evidence and make an impartial decision. The procedures and requirements often include testing the neutrality of a member of the jury thereby excluding those who appear partial.
Initially, the selection of jurors is random by indiscriminate selection of individuals from a qualified population. The qualified population comprises of adults existing within the authority of the court. Jury selection thus includes stratified questioning of individuals in the venire. In many states, the voter registration is used to compose a list of qualified citizens to serve on a jury (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013).
A judge and lawyers of both the plaintiff and the defendant oversee the questioning and evict members who appear biased or appear unable to serve effectively thus the concept entitled “challenge for cause” (Oldham, 2006). Furthermore, both parties in a criminal case have a discretionary right to reject a stipulated number of jurors without proving any reason for their rejections. In the state of Georgia each party involved in the case receives three peremptory challenges. The way Voir dire is conducted varies in different courtrooms (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013).
After the selection of the jury, the first step before the beginning of a trail is the selection the foreperson, a head-juror. In some cases, a judge can appoint the foreman from the composed jury while at other times the other members can hold a vote to select the foreperson. The roles of the foreperson include asking questions on behalf of the jury. The individual also facilitates the proceedings of the jury and announces the verdict of the jury. The United States Supreme court decided juries must make decisions in death penalty cases (Neubaver & Meinhold, 2013).
Scope of trial by jury
Numerous articles of the American constitution guarantee the right to jury trial. The Sixth Amendment, Article Three, Section 2 of the American constitution, and the Seventh Amendment both provide specific provision to ensure that every American accused of a crime whose punishment exceeds six months of incarceration enjoys an inalienable right to trial by the jury. Furthermore, the constitutions of most American states also permit jury trial for lesser crimes. However, some have eliminated the jury trial for offenses punishable by small fines. The supreme court established that cases that attract imprisonment of under six months do not require jury trials. As such, states have the discretion to choose whether to use a jury to try such cases or not.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court determined no offense is petty especially for the purposes of determining trial by jury if likely imprisonment exceeds six months. In traffic offenses often punishable by fines including parking tickets and charges of misdemeanors that provide for imprisonment of either six months or less, states reserve the discretion for a right by a jury.
Juvenile offender has no rights to jury trial. The justice system recognizes that juvenile cases are always civil and not criminal thus eliminating the right to trial by jury. Furthermore, the stakeholders contend that jury trial for juveniles is most like to have adversarial consequences on the children.
Pros and Cons of trial by jury
Jury trials have numerous advantages that contribute to the development of a strong democracy that values and protects basic human rights as envisioned in the country’s bill of rights. First, jury trials enhance checks and balances. Jury service gives citizens the opportunity to contribute to the dispensation of laws in the country. Similarly, jury trials help overcome and even prevent tyranny. The government can decide to oppress the people by influencing court proceedings and determination by courts. The freedom for members of the society to evaluate evidence and make critical decisions on the guilt or innocence of a citizen provides the power to the citizens thus eliminating any prospects for the government to become autocratic and trample on fundamental human rights (Abramson, 2000). Jury trials provide avenues for peaceful resolution of conflicts besides offering a chance for educating citizens on legal matters thereby developing an informed citizenry.
Despite the benefits, jury trials have equally significant drawbacks. First, the selection of juries is never random. Numerous interest comes to play with the parties manipulating the composition of a jury to influence the outcome of a case. Similarly, long trials are tiresome. Members of the jury become hasty in such cases as they try to free up time thereby making hasty decisions. Furthermore, most jurors lack a background in law thus are unable to analyze evidence from a legal point of view.
In retrospect, a jury trial is an important part of American justice system. The country’s constitution strived to safeguard basic human rights as captured in the bill of rights. Jury trial offers the best way of avoiding government autocracy by increasing the powers of the people to take part in legal processes and contribute to the dispensation of law, order, and justice. The trial involves the participation of ordinary members of the society in criminal cases. It offers a structure of infusing public participation in governance. However, it also has specific drawbacks that may hinder its effectiveness.