The Jury.The trial jury in either a civil or criminal case is chosen from a list called a venire or jury pool that has been compiled by the court clerk. The method of selecting names for the venire varies. In many states the list is compiled from voter registration lists, drivers license lists, or tax assessment rolls. In the federal courts, the clerk compiles the jury list from the roster of registered voters in the counties comprising the court’s jurisdiction. This list is compiled with the assistance of a jury commissioner who is appointed by the presiding judge.
Most states require that a court official screen the list of potential jurors to eliminate persons unqualified or ineligible under relevant state laws. Traditionally many persons were exempted from jury duty because of their jobs. The exemptions varied from state to state, but the most common exemptions were for lawyers, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, teachers and the clergy. In some states nurses, journalists, printers, railroad, telegraph, and telephone employees, government officials, firefighters, and police officers were also exempt. Generally, persons were exempt because the jobs they did were considered so important to society that they couldn't be released from them for jury duty.
However, these automatic exemptions and excuses are becoming less and less common. The American Bar Association's Standards Relating to Jury Use say that all automatic excuses and exemptions should be eliminated, and in many states they have been sharply cut back or completely done away with.
Once the jury list is assembled, juries of six to twelve persons are selected from this pool. The size of jury varies from state to state and depends to some extent on the type of case at trial. In civil cases, especially in courts of limited jurisdiction, the standard size in many jurisdictions is becoming six, which can be increased by stipulation of both parties. In misdemeanor cases there are sometimes fewer than twelve jurors, though in serious criminal cases twelve jurors are generally required. The old requirement that juries be unanimous is also changing. In misdemeanor and civil cases particularly, states are experimenting with permitting verdicts based on the concurrence of three-fourths or five-sixths of the jurors.
Alternate jurors are selected in some cases to take the place of jurors who may become disabled during the trial. Alternate jurors hear the evidence just as the other jurors do, but they do not participate in the deliberations unless they replace an original juror.
Jury selection begins with the court clerk's calling twelve people on the jury list and asking them to take a place in the jury box. The judge usually makes a brief statement explaining what kind of case is to be tried and inquiring whether there is any reason the potential jurors cannot serve. The judge or the lawyers then ask them questions ranging from their names, occupations, and residences to whether they have any knowledge of the case. This questioning of the potential jurors is known as voir dire.
If either lawyer believes there is information which suggests a juror is prejudiced about the case, he or she can ask that the juror be dismissed for cause. For example, a juror can be dismissed for cause if he or she is a close relative of one of the parties or one of the lawyers, or if he or she works for a company that is part of the lawsuit. A juror can only be dismissed for cause with the concurrence of the judge. Each lawyer may challenge an unlimited number of jurors for cause.
In addition to challenges for cause, each lawyer has a specific number of peremptory challenges. These challenges permit a lawyer to excuse a potential juror without stating a cause. In effect, they allow a lawyer to exercise a hunch, to dismiss a juror because of a belief that the juror will not be sympathetic. Peremptory challenges are limited to a certain number determined by the kind of lawsuit being tried and may not be used to discriminate on the basis or race or sex.
When both parties have agreed upon a jury, the jurors are sworn in by the court clerk. Those not selected are excused from participating as jurors in the case.
Instructions to the Jury.After closing arguments, the judge instructs the jury about the relevant laws that should guide its deliberations. (In some jurisdictions, the court may instruct the jury at any time after the close of evidence. This sometimes occurs before closing arguments.) The judge reads the instructions to the jury. This is commonly referred to as the judge’s charge to the jury.
Jury Deliberations. After receiving the instructions, the jury retires to the jury room to begin deliberating. In most states the first order of business is to elect one of the jurors as the foreman or forewoman.
The bailiff sits outside the jury room to ensure that no one communicates with the jury during deliberations.
In some states, the jury may take the exhibits introduced into evidence and the judge's instructions to the jury room. Sometimes the jury will have a question about the evidence or the judge's instructions. If this happens, the jury will give a note to the bailiff to take to the judge. The judge may respond to the note, or may call the jury back into the courtroom for further instructions or to have portions of the transcript read to them.
Usually the court provides the jury with written forms of all possible verdicts, so that when a decision is reached, the jury has only to choose the proper verdict form.
In most instances, the verdict in a criminal case must be unanimous. In some states a less than unanimous decision is permitted in civil cases. All federal cases require a unanimous decision.
If the jury cannot come to a decision by the end of the day, the jurors may be sequestered, or housed in a hotel and secluded from all contact with other people, newspapers and news reports. In many cases, though, the jury will be allowed to go home at night, provided neither party objects.
If the jurors cannot agree on a verdict, a hung jury results, leading to a mistrial. The case is not decided, and it may be tried again at a later date before a new jury. However, if the plaintiff or state decides not to pursue the case further, it is over, and the defendant is free from civil liability or criminal punishment.
Decision. After reaching a decision, the jury notifies the bailiff, who notifies the judge. All of the participants reconvene in the courtroom and the decision is announced. The announcement may be made by either the foreman or the court clerk.
Possible verdicts in criminal cases are "guilty" or "not guilty." In a civil suit, the jury will find for the plaintiff or the defendant. If the jury finds for the plaintiff, it will also usually set out the amount of damages.
Sometimes verdicts other than these are possible. "Guilty but insane" is a possible verdict in some states. In some very complicated civil trials, when applying the law to the facts might be too difficult for a jury, the judge may simply ask the jury to decide one or more factual questions, and then the judge will apply the law to the facts as determined by the jury. This is called a "special verdict."