Broadcast: May 10, 2004
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Today, we examine a British legal tradition that settlers brought here centuries ago: trial by jury.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution establishes the right to a jury trial in all federal criminal cases. The Seventh Amendment gives the same right in civil cases that involve more than a small amount of money. States also have their own laws that govern jury trials.
The United States has three kinds of juries. The most common is called the petit jury. Petit juries decide both criminal and civil cases. They can have as few as five or six members or as many as twelve. Often a jury trial lasts only a day or two, but some can go much longer.
During a trial, lawyers for opposing sides question people called to give evidence. 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 must make. For example, in a criminal trial, the judge explains reasonable doubt.
Under American law, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. Jurors do not have to be completely sure that the person is innocent. They only need to have a reasonable question in their mind. Unless they are sure the person is guilty as charged, they must find the suspect not guilty.
Directions to juries are often full of legal language. California and other states have been trying to make them easier to understand.
Juries meet in private to reach a judgment. Most states require all the jurors in a criminal case to agree on the verdict. A few states now require only a majority vote.
When a jury cannot reach a verdict, it is called a hung jury. There was a recent example in New York. A jury failed to agree on criminal charges against two former leaders of Tyco International, a manufacturing and service company.
Dennis Kozlowski served as chief executive. Mark Swartz was chief financial officer. The two men were accused of stealing six-hundred-million dollars from Tyco. Both pleaded not guilty.
Eleven members of the jury believed the men were guilty of at least some of the charges. The twelfth juror, however, disagreed. She held to her opinion during days of argument with other jurors.
Finally, in early April, the judge declared a mistrial with a hung jury. He blamed outside pressure on the juror. News media usually do not report the names of jurors, at least until a trial ends. However, this juror was said to have made an "O.K." sign with her hand to lawyers for the defense.
The trial lasted six months. Another trial may take place, since the first ended without a verdict.
Individuals and organizations that believe they have suffered a civil wrong can bring a lawsuit in court. This process is called filing suit. Many lawsuits are settled out of court. If a trial is held, jurors are not required to decide beyond a reasonable doubt, like in a criminal case. They must decide only that there is enough evidence to support the accusations. The jury might also award thousands or millions of dollars in damages, if requested.
Another kind of jury is the grand jury. As many as twenty-three people may serve on one. 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 enough, then it indicts the person.
In April, a grand jury in California indicted Michael Jackson. The entertainer faces charges of sexual crimes with a child. A petty jury will have to decide the case at a trial.
The other kind of grand jury is called the investigatory grand jury. Officials often call this kind of grand jury together in cases of organized crime or wrongdoing by government officials. The jurors are asked to approve efforts to gather evidence, often secretly.
There was an interesting case a few years ago in the state of Connecticut. A judge acted as a one-person jury to investigate the death of a fifteen-year-old girl. Martha Moxley was killed in nineteen-seventy-five.
The judge gathered evidence that led to the trial of a man who had lived near the girl. The man was also fifteen years old at the time of the killing. A petit jury found him guilty and sentenced him to prison.
Finally, 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. An inquest takes place when someone has died under suspicious or unknown conditions. The jury is asked to decide the cause of death.
Courts choose jurors from public records like lists of voters or automobile drivers. People called to jury duty receive some questions by mail. Are they American citizens? Do they understand English? Do they have a mental or physical disability that would interfere? Some people are excused for health or family reasons, or because they cannot take time from work. But jury service is considered a duty of citizenship.
A judge asks more questions once a jury is being chosen for a trial. So do lawyers for both sides in the case. Many times, they can reject people without the need to give a reason.
In some big cases, hundreds of people are called. Lawyers may use jury experts to help them choose the ones who seem most sympathetic. Some people say this is not fair.
Jurors are not supposed to form opinions or know too much about a case before the trial begins. But sometimes it is difficult to find such people.
In California, a man named Scott Peterson has been charged with the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci. Mister Peterson denies the charges. It would be difficult to live in the United States and not have heard or read about this case.
Lawyers for Mister Peterson asked to have the trial moved out of the city where police believe the crime took place. The lawyers said he would not be able to get a fair trial there. So earlier this year a judge agreed to a move.
But on May third the head of the defense team requested another change. He said it was still not possible to find enough people who could be trusted to serve as fair-minded jurors.
There are criticisms of the American jury system. Some involve issues that divide Americans in general. One such issue is race. An example often used is the case of O.J. Simpson, the former actor and football player. Mister Simpson is black. He was charged in Los Angeles with killing his former wife and a male friend of hers, both white.
In nineteen-ninety-five, a mainly African American jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of criminal charges. Later, a mainly white jury ruled against him in a civil case brought by the families of the victims. The jury ordered him to pay millions of dollars in damages.
Public opinion research found that most white Americans believed that the criminal jury freed a guilty man. Most black Americans believed the civil jury punished an innocent man. Neither group thought the other had acted out of a desire for justice.
Wealth is another issue for critics of the legal system. One recent example involves Martha Stewart. In March a jury found the businesswoman guilty of lying about her sale of shares in a company.
One of the jurors later said the verdict meant a defeat for the rich and powerful. Commentators questioned whether the man had decided that Martha Stewart was guilty before the trial began.
Choosing average Americans to serve on juries is considered the democratic way. But legal cases are increasingly complex. Many are difficult for the average person to understand. Yet jurors may not even be permitted to take notes as they listen to evidence.
Legal experts sometimes say that people who would make the best jurors do not want to serve. Or, they are not wanted. Lawyers for one side or the other might consider them too smart, and so more difficult to influence.
Many people called to jury duty for the first time think it will not be worth the trouble. Afterward, a common reaction is that they enjoyed and learned from the experience. They say the jury system is not perfect, but no one has yet to find a better way.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for This is America, in VOA Special English.