Trial by Jury in the United States
Introduction to Trial by Jury
In civil cases the right to a trial by jury may, in most jurisdictions, be waived. In some states the defendant may waive the right to be tried by a jury even in criminal cases, although in many jurisdictions the rule obtains that in all cases involving the commission of felonies the defendant must be tried by a jury.” (1)
Trial by Jury in the United States Constitution
The 6th Amendment also says that a person accused of a federal crime must be tried “by an impartial jury.” This guarantee reinforces an earlier one set out in Article III, Section 2. The right to trial by jury is also binding on the States through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, but only in cases involving “serious” crimes, Duncan v. Louisiana, 1968. In Baldwin v. New York, 1970, the Court defined serious crimes as those for which imprisonment for more than six months is possible. The trial jury is often called the petit jury. Petit is the French word for “small.”
The 6th Amendment adds that the members of the federal court jury must be drawn from “the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.” This clause gives the defendant any benefit there might be in having a court and jury familiar with the people and problems of the area.
A defendant may ask to be tried in another place–seek a “change of venue”–on grounds that the people of the locality are so prejudiced in the case that an impartial jury cannot be drawn. The judge must decide whether a change of venue is justified.
A defendant may also waive (put aside or relinquish) the right to a jury trial. However, he or she can do so only if the judge is satisfied that the defendant is fully aware of his or her rights and understands what that action means. In fact, a judge can order a jury trial even when a defendant does not want one, One Lot Emerald Cut Stones and One Ring v. United States, 1972. If a defendant waives the right, a bench trial is held. That is, a judge alone hears the case. (Of course, a defendant can plead guilty and so avoid a trial of any kind.)
In federal practice, the jury that hears a criminal case must have 12 members. Some federal civil cases are tried before juries of as few as six members, however. Several States now provide for smaller juries, often of six members, in both criminal and civil cases.
In the federal courts, the jury that hears a criminal case can convict the accused only by a unanimous vote. Most States follow the same rule. The 14th Amendment does not say that there cannot be juries of fewer than 12 persons, Williams v. Florida, 1970, but it does not allow juries of fewer than six members, Ballewv. Georgia, 1978. Nor does it prevent a State from providing for a conviction on a less than unanimous jury vote, Apodaca v. Oregon, 1972. But if a jury has only six members, it may convict only by a unanimous vote, Burch v. Louisiana, 1979.
In a long series of cases, dating from Strauder v. West Virginia, 1880, the Supreme Court has held that a jury must be “drawn from a fair cross section of the community.” A person is denied the right to an impartial jury if he or she is tried by a jury from which members of any groups “playing major roles in the community” have been excluded, Taylor v. Louisiana, 1975.
In short, no person can be kept off a jury on such grounds as race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. As the Court has put it in several recent decisions on the point: Both the 5th and the 14th amendments mean that jury service cannot be determined by “the pigmentation of skin, the accident of birth, or the choice of religion,” Miller-El v. Dretke, 2005.
According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, the right to jury trial is provided in three clauses of the Constitution of the United States. Jury trial in federal criminal cases is required by Article III, which is otherwise given to defining the role of the federal judiciary.
The Right to Trial by Jury Explained
- Criminal Law
- Criminal Procedure
Notes and References
- Information about Trial by Jury in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
Right to an Adequate Defense