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Around Our Town...Legally Speaking

Right to Trial by Jury

07/01/2005 - I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution. —Thomas Jefferson

The origins of the jury system are cloaked in mystery. It goes back at least to the assizes of Henry II (1133-1189), which was a means of taking census and collecting taxes. It gradually evolved into a means of doing justice. In early days the jurors not only knew the litigants, they also knew something about the dispute. They were there to settle a quarrel between neighbors and friends. Today, however, any knowledge of the dispute or familiarity with the litigants is cause for disqualification.

American Patriots gave up their lives for the principles of representative government, including freedom of speech, press and religion and the right to trial by jury. These rights are embodied in our Constitution and The Bill of Rights.

In 1787, the members of the first Congress of the United States insisted on preserving the right to a trial by jury to make sure that future generations would be judged by their neighbors - representatives of the people - not by the government.

As a result, Article III, Section 2, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution provides that the "trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury. . ." The Sixth Amendment reinforces this right by stating that "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. . ." The Seventh Amendment preserves the right of trial by jury in civil suits.

Juries provide powerful checks on the power of government and lend moral authority in verdicts resulting from the judicial process and are a vital force in America.

Civil jury trials have few friends amongst bureaucrats, rule makers, legislators and some other players in the justice system. By preserving civil jury trials we strengthen our democracy.

The jury has the responsibility of deciding the facts at issue in a trial. For example, did

Johansson really drive through a red stoplight and cause the accident? If so, what amount of damages, if any should be awarded? The jurors listen to the lawyer's opening statements, direct and cross examination of witnesses, and the closing arguments of each side. Jurors are charged with listening and observing closely the testimony presented. After the judge instructs the jury as to the law and the issues of fact to be reached, they retire to consider and render a verdict.

During deliberations jurors consider, examine, and weigh all the witnesses and evidence in the case with the sole power to decide disputed questions of fact and to put their conclusions in a verdict. In a criminal case, a jury might be sequestered or separated from the public over night and if the case is particularly sensational, the jury may be sequestered for the length of the trial. During a trial, jurors are not to talk to anyone about the case or listen to anyone else talk about the case outside of the courtroom.

Although commonly done, it is very difficult to assess the validity of a jury decision unless the individual evaluating the verdict was actually there, hearing each and every scrap of evidence and assessing and weighing the credibility of all the witnesses and measuring all the facts.

Trial by jury is often the most effective means of settling disputes between individuals as fairly as possible. Trial by jury is a fundamental right which should be protected from those who would seek to diminish or even eliminate its role as the anchor for the good ship U.S.S. American Justice.

Next month: TheMcDonald's decision.

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