to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we take a look at the jury system
in the United States.
listener in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Batmunkh Buyantogtokh, wants to learn more
about American juries. For that, we visit a courtroom that looks much like the
ones in movies and TV shows like "Law & Order."
are in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The D.C. Superior Court
is the general trial court for the city of Washington.
is the fourth day in the case of a man accused of assault with a deadly weapon.
We could not bring in a recorder, but the courtroom is mostly quiet except for
the lawyers, witnesses and judge talking.
the judge's right, along the side of the courtroom, is an area where twelve
people are seated. In the front row is a man with glasses who looks old enough
to be retired. A woman dressed like a young professional sits behind him,
listening as a witness is questioned. A man also in his twenties or thirties
rocks back in his seat. His hair is cut on both sides of his head; down the
middle stands a mohawk.
three and the other nine people are the members of the jury.
day, thousands of Americans are called to serve on jury duty. The idea of
citizens hearing legal arguments might date back to the ancient Greeks and
Egyptians. But the modern trial by jury is a British tradition that colonists brought
to North America centuries ago.
on jury trials differ from state to state. But the United States Constitution
guarantees the right to trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment establishes the
right in all federal criminal cases. The Seventh Amendment gives the same right
in civil cases that involve more than a small amount of money.
American system has three kinds of juries. The most common one is the petit jury. "Petit" -- p-e-t-i-t -- comes from the
French word for small. Petit juries can have as few as five or six members or
as many as twelve. Twelve is traditionally the number in a criminal case.
a jury trial will last only a day or two. But some go for weeks or even months.
During a trial, lawyers
for the opposing sides question the witnesses who testify. The lawyers also
make opening and closing statements to the jury. At the end, the judge makes a
final statement to the jury. The judge explains the laws that govern the
decision the jury is asked to make.
then deliberates. The members meet in private, choose a leader and try to agree
on a judgment. Most states require all the jurors in a criminal case to agree
on the verdict.
Sometimes a jury is unable to reach
a verdict. This is called a hung jury. The judge declares a mistrial.
Prosecutors then have to decide whether to try the case again.
Juries decide questions of fact; judges decide
questions of law. A judge may overrule a jury's decision in some situations,
but that is unusual. Decisions by judges and juries can be appealed to higher
Juries rarely decide
sentences. An exception is when a jury is asked to recommend either execution
or life in prison in murder cases punishable by death.
American law, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. Also, there
is constitutional protection against double jeopardy -- being put on trial
twice for the same crime. In mistrials, though, prosecutors may retry a case
until a jury reaches a verdict.
verdict is either "guilty" or "not guilty." Jurors must
find a defendant not guilty even if they are not completely sure the person is
innocent of any crime. Jurors only need to have a "reasonable doubt"
-- a reasonable question in their mind -- that the person is guilty as charged.
This is true for criminal cases, but civil cases are different.
and organizations can bring a lawsuit in court if they believe they have
suffered a civil wrong. Many lawsuits are settled without a trial. But if a
trial is held, jurors are not required to decide "beyond a reasonable
doubt." They must decide only that there is enough evidence to support the
jury might also award damages. The money could be the amount requested by the
plaintiff, the one bringing the action. Or it could be less. Or it could be
more, if the jury wants to punish the losing party and set an example for
grand jury is bigger than a petit jury. The United States has two kinds of
grand juries. The charging grand jury decides if there is enough evidence to
bring someone to trial. If the jury decides there is, then it returns an
second kind is the investigative grand jury. Officials often call this kind of
grand jury together in cases of organized crime or suspected corruption by
public officials. The jurors are asked to approve efforts to gather evidence,
often secretly, to build a case.
Some investigations in the United States are heard by a
coroner's jury. A coroner is a local medical examiner. The coroner usually
calls six jurors to a hearing known as an inquest.
inquest takes place when someone has died under suspicious or unknown
conditions. The jury is asked to decide the cause of death.
Courts choose people for jury duty from public records, like
lists of voters or drivers. Some people are excused for health or family
reasons, or because they cannot take time from work.
judge and lawyers for both sides in a case question possible jurors. Lawyers try
to choose those they think will be more sympathetic to their side. And they try
to exclude those they think will be more sympathetic to the other side.
sometimes use experts to help them choose jurors. But jury consultants cost a
lot more than most average defendants can afford.
criminal cases, suspects who do not have enough money for a lawyer are given one
free of charge to represent them. Critics of the criminal justice system,
however, point out that public defenders are often overworked and
Millions of people recognize the music from "Law &
Order." But just how realistic are the trials acted out by Hollywood?
MELVIN WRIGHT: "I think people who watch T.V. get
a false sense of what happens in real trials."
Wright has been a judge for eleven years. He serves on the D.C. Superior Court.
He says just choosing a jury even for the simplest trials can often take two or
he says programs like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" suggest that
scientific evidence is used much more often than it really is. Judge Wright
says the cost of gathering lots of scientific evidence can limit the use in
Washington, jurors receive thirty dollars a day for jury duty. Private employers
are not required to pay workers for their time on a jury.
People called for jury duty at the D.C. Superior Court
are asked to watch a video explaining the rules of jury service. They are asked
to serve for either one day or one trial. If they are not chosen for a trial
after a day, they are not required to return. The court provides child care for
jurors with young children.
Members of a jury can take notes during
a trial. Some courts even let jurors ask questions. But there are supposed to
be limits to how much information jurors may gather by themselves. Many courts
are rewriting their rules to deal with the use of the Internet and mobile
Melvin Wright explains how the D.C. Superior Court handles this issue:
MELVIN WRIGHT: "We instruct jurors that they
cannot during the course of a trial use Google or Twitter or any other
electronic device to obtain information. Everything that they are supposed to
learn has to come from inside the courtroom.
"The theory is this: If you talk to someone or you
go to another source like Google to get information, you have gotten input from
a source that the other jurors have not."
Earlier this year, a judge in the state of Florida was
forced to declare a mistrial after eight weeks in a federal drug case.
At first, one juror
admitted to searching the Internet. But the judge questioned the remaining
jurors and discovered that eight others had also gone online to research or
discuss the case.
Jurors are not
supposed to discuss a case with anyone else during a trial. But the rules are
not easy to enforce when the jury goes home at night.
MELVIN WRIGHT: "There is no way we can monitor the
activities of each juror twenty-four hours a day. So we have to have some trust
that people will do what we tell them to do."
American courts do most of their work
without a jury. But legal experts say ninety percent of all
jury trials in the world are in the United States. We asked Judge Melvin Wright what he considers the
strengths and weaknesses of the American system.
MELVIN WRIGHT: "The criminal justice system relies
on the testimony of persons and their ability to tell the truth. And sometimes
people are honestly mistaken. Sometimes people come in and lie and people are
convicted. So the system is not foolproof.
"But overall, it is in our view, the better system
than anywhere else in the world because it gives average citizens an
opportunity to listen to the evidence and make independent judgments the
government is not part of."
Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake.
I'm Barbara Klein.
And I'm Steve Ember. To read and listen
to our programs online, go to voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week
for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.