A citizen’s right to a trial by jury is a central feature of the United States Constitution. It is considered a fundamental principle of the American legal system.
Laws and regulations governing jury selection and conviction/acquittal requirements vary from state to state (and are not available in courts of American Samoa), but the fundamental right itself is mentioned five times in the Constitution: Once in the original text (Article III Section 2) and four times in the Bill of Rights (in the Fifth, the Sixth, and the Seventh Amendments).
The American system utilizes three types of juries: Investigative grand juries, charged with determining whether enough evidence exists to warrant a criminal indictment; petit juries (also known as a trial jury), which listen to evidence presented during the course of a criminal trial and are charged with determining the guilt or innocence of the accused party; and civil juries, which are charged with evaluating civil lawsuits.
The most outstanding feature of the U.S. system is that convictions (but not necessarily acquittals) in serious criminal cases must be unanimous, which the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed to be a constitutional guarantee in Ramos v. Louisiana.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution states that all trials shall be by jury. The right was expanded with the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” and the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees a jury trial in civil cases.
Those who wrote our constitutions knew from history and experience that it was necessary to protect against unfounded criminal charges brought to eliminate enemies and against judges too responsive to the voice of higher authority. The framers of the constitutions strove to create an independent judiciary but insisted upon further protection against arbitrary action. Providing an accused with the right trial by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge.
The representation of women in United States juries has increased during the last hundred years, due to legislation and court rulings. Up until the late twentieth century, women were routinely excluded or allowed to opt out from jury service. The push for women’s jury rights generated debate similar to the women’s suffrage movement, permeating the media with arguments for and against. Federal and state court case rulings increased women’s participation on juries. Some states allowed women to serve on juries much earlier than others. States also differed on whether women’s suffrage implied women’s jury service.
A grand jury decides whether or not there is enough evidence (“probable cause”) that a person has committed a crime in order to put him or her on trial. If a grand jury decides there is enough evidence, the person is indicted. A grand jury has 16-23 members, and its proceedings are not open to the public. Unlike a petit jury, defendants and their attorneys do not have the right to appear before the grand jury.
A petit jury, also known as a trial jury, is the standard type of jury used in criminal cases in the United States. Petit juries are responsible for deciding whether or not a defendant is guilty of violating the law in a specific case. They consist of 6-12 people and their deliberations are private. Their decision is known as a verdict and decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty.