Every week thousands of prospective jurors assemble in hundreds of courthouses throughout the nation to participate in a civic duty and a right guaranteed by the sixth Amendment to the constitution – the provision of trial by a jury of peers. By serving on a jury, you have a direct hand in the administration of justice.
The law and court procedures of our state had as their origin the Common Law of England where the right to trial by jury existed since 1215. This right has been sacredly guarded and preserved by the institutions of our various states and by the Federal Constitution.
The jury is responsible for the correct determination of the facts which are in dispute in a given case. Errors of law may be corrected by the trial judge or appellate courts, but a jury’s error of fact may never be corrected. Thus, a juror’s duty is one of grave responsibility and importance.
Procedures in Civil Cases
The Beginning of the Case. The person who begins a lawsuit is known as the plaintiff and the person against whom the suit is brought is called the defendant. A suit is commenced when the plaintiff files his or her complaint in court and in response to this claim or complaint, the defendant then files an answer, setting up defenses and other contentions. These papers are known as pleadings. Jurors should understand that, at all times, the pleadings are not evidence but that they merely state the written contentions of the parties.
Jury Selection. In most civil cases, the jury is selected from a panel composed of 24 qualified persons. In determining whether all persons are qualified, the judge or the lawyers for the parties may ask certain questions directed either to the panel as a whole or to individual jurors. If it is determined that any juror is related to any of the parties or has already formed an opinion about the case, that juror will be excused and another substituted. There will then be a full panel of 24 from which a jury of twelve persons may be selected or, in some courts, a panel of twelve from which a jury of six persons may be selected.
Selecting a jury is done by a process known as “striking the jury.” It gets its name because the parties alternately strike names from the panel until the number is reduced by one-half. the chosen jurors will constitute the jury that tries the case.
Presentation of Evidence. Ordinarily, after statements by both parties as to their contentions, the plaintiff first presents evidence to support his position; then the defendant presents his evidence. The plaintiff may then offer evidence to rebut or explain any of the defendant’s evidence. Most evidence is presented by the oral testimony of witnesses who testify under oath. The lawyer for the party who has called the witness proceeds with his cross-examination.
After the cross-examination has been concluded, the lawyer who called the witness may then ask questions on redirect examination. Often oral testimony has been taken prior to the trial, and when the witness is not available, this previously recorded testimony may be read into evidence by the attorney as if the witness was present and testifying.
The Charge. After the conclusion of the evidence and the final arguments, the judge will charge (or instruct) the jurors as to the question or questions they are to decide and as to the law which applies to the evidence that has been presented.
After the judge has charged the jury, the jury will retire to consider its verdict. The jury must decide the facts based on the evidence presented and then apply the law as charged by the judge in deciding the question or questions involved.
The Verdict. The verdict and its fairness is obviously of vital importance to the parties in the case. The law requires a unanimous verdict. In reaching the verdict, jurors should enter into the discussion of the case with an open mind and should freely exchange views with each other. They should not hesitate to change their original views or opinions concerning the case when convinced, after a fair discussion, that another opinion or view is better.
Procedures in Criminal Cases
With the few exceptions, criminal cases are tried under almost the same rules of procedure and in much the same manner as civil cases. The person indicted or against whom the offense has been charged is known generally as the accused. The State prosecutes criminal cases, and all crimes are prosecuted in the name of the State. In a criminal case, the contention of the State is that a law of this State has been broken. The defendant, on the other hand, contends that, in a given case, he did not commit the offense charged or that there was some justification or mitigation. The lawyer who represents the State is called the District Attorney.
Major differences between civil and criminal cases are:
- In the selection of a jury in felony cases a panel of 30 jurors is made up with the exception of death penalty cases. In death penalty cases, a panel is made up of 42 jurors. Each juror is asked to stand before the Court and submit to an examination by counsel from either side. Counsel does not have anything to do with making up the panel but may strike as many jurors as the law prescribes for the particular type of case which is being tried. In misdemeanor cases, a panel of 12 jurors is made up and the State strikes two names from it and the defendant’s counsel strikes four. The six remaining names constitute the jury which will try the case.
- In a criminal case, the State proceeds by way of indictment or accusation. The defendant files no written answer. All material allegations in a the indictment or accusation are deemed to be denied.
- In a criminal case, the State must prove every essential element of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt except those elements which are admitted to be beyond a reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt is what the term implies – a doubt based upon reason and for which you can give a reason, and not a fancy conjecture of supposition that the defendant might be innocent. It is the doubt upon which a reasonable man would act, or decline to act, in a matter of importance or of grave concern to himself. It is the doubt of the fair-minded, impartial juror honestly seeking the truth.
- In a civil case, the plaintiff has only the burden of proving material elements in his case by a preponderance of the evidence. Preponderance of the evidence is defined as that superior weight of evidence upon the issues involved, while not enough to wholly free the mind from a reasonable doubt, is sufficient to incline a reasonable and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than to the other.
- In misdemeanor cases, which are those cases in which the defendant cannot be sentenced to more than one year on each count, the judge sets the sentence. In felony cases, the judge also sets the sentence and the duty of the jury is to determine guilt or innocence. In both civil and criminal cases, the judge will instruct the jury as to the form of the verdict and the jury should follow these instructions in writing up and returning the verdict.
During the Trial. During the trial and the recesses, jurors must not talk about the case with each other or with any other person or allow any persons to talk about the case in their presence. In some courthouses, the jurors are provided with a private room to which they, as a body, retire during the recess. If no room is provided, the jurors should not mingle with the lawyers or with the witnesses in the case. They must not accept any favor of any nature including such small items as a soft drink or a ride home from any of the witnesses, parties or counsel. If a juror is approached in any way by a party interested in the outcome of the case, he or she should report this communication privately to the Court. In short, a juror must refrain from participating in any activity which might tend to incline that juror toward one party or the other.
In the Jury Room. After the evidence has been concluded and the charge of the court has been delivered, the jury retires to the jury room to consider its verdict. Its first task is the selection of a foreman or forewoman. This person acts as the chairperson of the group.
It is the chairperson’s duty to see that the discussion among the jurors is carried on in a sensible and orderly fashion; that the issues submitted for decision are fully understood and fairly discussed; and that each juror has a chance to state his or her views upon every question. The chairperson supervises the taking of ballots, as well as signs any written verdicts which may be required and any written request which may be made to the judge (e.g.as a request for further charge on some point). In selecting this foreman or forewoman, it is well to select someone of experience and general knowledge who will command the respect of the other jurors.