A recent decline in the number of criminal cases tried by a jury has led to dispute surrounding the nature of the system. Jury trials in 2018 amounted to just 1% of criminal cases in England and Wales, and 2% of those in the United States, which raises the question: What are the benefits of the trial by a jury system, and are juries even necessary?
Undeniably, juries have their benefits within the legal system. A judge’s verdict is concluded on the basis of one person’s judgment, but juries take into consideration the opinions of 8-12 individuals. This produces a collective decision influenced by multiple people, which in turn reduces bias. Many argue that the exposure to violent crimes and other extreme criminal offences, has led to lawyers and judges becoming immune to the horrific extent of major crimes, such as murders and rapes, and so jurors may be better equipped to understand the emotional gravity of a case and decide on a “real-world” verdict. That said, as a result of this, jurors may be less effective than legal professionals in deciding a verdict, as their emotional involvement and vulnerability in a case can lead to a lack of thorough consideration of the evidence, as jurors become pawns for the prosecution to emotionally manipulate.
Perhaps most importantly, trial by jury forces lawyers to use universally comprehensible language in a court, that would otherwise be dominated by legal jargon, in order to ensure the jury understands the evidence presented. Therefore, mandatory jury service in many western countries not only provides the general population a chance to wield real power in court, but allows them to simultaneously be educated on the law. The jury’s involvement in legal cases upholds democratic values and rights, which would otherwise rarely be exercised, except every four years or so upon a general election. The inclusion of the public in legal matters is seen as a way to maintain the democratic structure of society.
On the other hand, it is not an uncommon attitude that jury service is a burdensome and inescapable disruption to a citizen’s everyday life. Whilst some jurors feel valued to be included in court cases, many detest their required involvement. This leads to occurrences such as the 2008 Australian drug case, in which a three month long drug trial had to be abandoned, because it was discovered that jurors had been engaging in a sudoku tournament during the trial. In this case, jurors, who were seemingly attentive and diligently note-making, were actually bored to the extent that they disregarded their responsibilities and were deemed unable to decide on a properly informed verdict. Moreover, long and cumbersome court cases can lead to incidences such as the famous 1994 British murder case, in which four jurors were discovered to have used an Ouija board to contact the deceased victims of alleged murderer, Stephen Young, therefore undermining their impartiality.
Although these ridiculous cases are luckily isolated and uncommon occurrences, they demonstrate that a lack of desire to be involved, combined with the jurors’ own lack of legal experience, can lead to the benefits of trial by a jury being undermined.
The key debate surrounding trial by jury is whether “impartial” juries are in reality, fair, as they are required to be. The practice of “peremptory challenge”, although abolished in England and Wales as of 1988, is still common in other countries such as the United States and Australia. The peremptory challenge is when attorneys can strike a limited number of jurors from the pool, without giving a reason, and this may be used to discriminate and construct a demographically biased jury. In North Carolina, black jurors are 2.5 times as likely to be excluded than white jurors, as lawyers may abuse their right to a peremptory challenge.
Although measures such as the Batson Challenge have been introduced to counter the possible discrimination from peremptory challenges, these are widely considered to be ineffective. A Batson Challenge is when one party suspects the other of abusing peremptory challenges to discriminate, and the accused party must therefore provide a valid reason for their eliminations. Many lawyers have regarded that these reasons, although appearing neutral on the surface, are often used to hide obvious discrimination, with reasons such as, “I struck jurors who seemed to be suspicious of the police,” and, “I struck jurors who appeared too emotionally involved because they are mothers of teenagers like the defendant,” being used to eliminate black or female jurors.
In Britain, where peremptory challenges have long been abolished, evidence suggests that juries are effective and impartial as required. The Ministry of Justice’s most recent research into the fairness of juries, conducted in 2010, confirmed that juries are “fair, effective and efficient”. The report, “Are Juries Fair”, interviewed 1000 jurors and surveyed 68,000 jury verdicts. It concluded that all-white juries are no more likely to convict a person of colour than a Caucasian defendant, and that, contrary to popular belief, juries convict in rape cases more often than they acquit.
However, the problem of pre-trial media remains evident in swaying a jury’s impartiality. 35% of jurors in high-profile cases actively remembered pre-trial media coverage during the trial, and 20% admitted to likely being influenced by it. Despite the apparent racial and gender impartiality of juries, the problem of publicity and media coverage in our modern digital age remains a key challenge to achieving true jury impartiality.
It is evident that trial by jury, whilst the system has its benefits, has many flaws. The practice, which dates back to the year 1215, in England, has undergone many changes over the centuries, and it appears that further changes are still needed today. Perhaps a blind screening of the “Voir Dire” process is required, in order to reduce the use of peremptory challenges to discriminate, and perhaps an introduction of a form of training for potential jurors would combat inexperience, which makes them liable to make mistakes (or even, in some cases, use a Ouija board to help with their decision-making). Despite the public’s common criticism of juries’ verdicts, it is important to remember that the media filters out much of the information which jurors, unlike the general public, are exposed to in a lengthy trial. In reality, studies have shown that juries are indeed very effective, and rarely accuse innocent defendants, contrary to popular belief. Therefore, whilst we are often quick to criticise juries, the evidence above suggests that trial by jury, at least in England and Wales, remains a very effective system, despite some obvious room for improvement.
- Batson Challenge – when one party accuses the other party of eliminating jurors based on sex, race, age, ethnicity, religion, or other demographic factors.
- Peremptory challenge – the right to eliminate a certain number of jurors, without being required to provide a reason for this challenge.
- Voir Dire – the process by which lawyers question each juror, in order to discover any underlying bias which may affect the trial. This is then used to strike jurors with the peremptory challenge.
- Ministry of Justice – Criminal Court Statistics Quarterly – Ministry of Justice – June 28th 2018
- John Gramlich – only 2% of federal criminal defendants go to trial… – Factank – June 11th 2019
- Author unknown – drug trial abandoned after jurors play Sudoku – ABC News – June 10th 2008
- Heather Mills – Retrial order in ‘Ouija case’ – The Independent – October 25th 1994
- Catherine M. Grosso and Barbara O’Brien – A Stubborn Legacy – Michigan State University College of Law – January 1st 2012
- Cheryl Thomas – Are Juries Fair? – Ministry of Justice – February 2010
- Alan Travis – The verdict on juries: fair, effective and efficient – The Guardian – February 17 2010