The historical roots of the jury date to the eighth century A.D. Long before becoming an impartial body, during the reign of Charlemagne, juries interrogated prisoners. In the twelfth century, the Normans brought the jury to England, where its accusatory function remained: Citizens acting as jurors were required to come forward as witnesses and to give evidence before the monarch's judges. Not until the fourteenth century did jurors cease to be witnesses and begin to assume their modern role as triers of fact. This role was well established in British common law when settlers brought the tradition to America, and after the United States declared its independence, all state constitutions guaranteed the right of jury trial in criminal cases.
Viewing the jury as central to the rights of the new nation, the Founders firmly established its role in the U.S. Constitution. They saw the jury as not only a benefit to the accused, but also as a check on the judiciary, much as Congress exists as a check on the EXECUTIVE BRANCH. The Constitution establishes and safeguards the right to a trial by jury in four ways: Article III establishes this right in federal criminal cases; the FIFTH AMENDMENT provides for grand juries, or panels that review complaints in criminal cases, hear the evidence of the prosecutor, and decide whether to issue an indictment that will bring the accused person to trial; the SIXTH AMENDMENT guarantees in serious federal criminal cases the right to trial by a petit jury, the most common form of jury; and the SEVENTH AMENDMENT provides for a jury trial in civil cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $20.
The modern jury is largely a result of decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has shaped and sometimes extended these constitutional rights. One important decision was the Court's 1968 ruling in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S. Ct. 1444, 20 L. Ed. 2d 491, which requires states to provide for jury trials in serious criminal cases. Prior to Duncan, states had their own rules; Louisiana, for instance, required juries only in cases where the possible punishment was death or hard labor. The Court declared that the right to a jury trial is fundamental. In cases in which the punishment exceeds six months' imprisonment, it ruled, the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT requires that the protections of the Sixth Amendment apply equally to federal and state criminal prosecutions.
Defendants may, under some circumstances, refuse a jury trial in favor of a trial before a judge. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to a jury trial does not imply a related right to refuse one (Singer v. United States, 380 U.S. 24, 85 S. Ct. 783, 13 L. Ed. 2d 630). It observed that juries are important not only to the defendant but also to the government and the public. The government, it wrote, has an interest in trying cases "before the tribunal which the Constitution regards as most likely to produce a fair result." Thus, in federal cases, rules governing CRIMINAL PROCEDURE allow a defendant to waive a jury trial only if the government consents and the court gives its approval. States vary in their approach, with some, such as Nebraska and Minnesota, requiring only the court's approval and others, such as Illinois and Louisiana, granting the defendant's wish as long as the decision is informed.
In 2002, a Jury Innovations Committee established in Florida offered no fewer than 48 jury-reform suggestions designed to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. The suggestions included requiring jury instructions to be made clearer and to allow jurors to discuss evidence as it is presented, instead of after deliberations begin.
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