The American system of justice generally allows litigants (the parties involved in a lawsuit) to choose between a jury trial and a bench trial. In a jury trial, the jury decides questions of fact and the judge applies the law. In a bench trial, the judge determines all questions of law and also decides all questions of fact. This article discusses the jury deliberation process.
Size of the Jury
Traditionally, the jury was composed of 12 people who had to reach a unanimous verdict. In 1970, the United States Supreme Court held that six-person juries were constitutional. Now most states permit juries of fewer than 12 persons for civil cases and criminal misdemeanor cases. Most states, however, still require a jury of 12 for criminal felony cases. The federal courts and 21 states, along with the District of Columbia, require unanimous verdicts in all civil cases. The remaining 29 states require a supermajority.
Basis for Jury Verdicts/Jury Rules
The judge gives instructions to the jury on what the law is and how to apply the law to the evidence presented in the case. The judge also defines relevant legal principles in the jury instructions. It is up to the jury to decide the facts in a case and to determine what actually happened.
Jury Deliberation Process
After the judge has “charged” the jury (instructed the jury on the law and how to apply it to the case being decided), the jury retires to a room for secret deliberations. At this point, the jurors select a foreperson or presiding juror who acts as the jury’s spokesperson. The bailiff makes sure that no one communicates with any juror during deliberations. The jurors can send a note to the judge with any questions they have. The judge will generally give a written answer to the jurors’ questions, but sometimes the judge asks the jurors to return to the courtroom for more instructions. Generally, jurors will be permitted to go home at night during deliberations. The judge directs them not to discuss the case with anyone and not to watch any news reports about the case. The judge can order that the jury be sequestered, which means the jury stays in a hotel and is kept from all contact with other people and news reports.
Hung or Deadlocked Juries
When the jury is unable to arrive at a verdict, the jury is deadlocked, and the result is a mistrial. The case can be tried again before a new jury. Hung juries generally occur because the jurors are unable to agree on evidentiary issues.
Jury Verdict Becomes Official
When the jury reaches a verdict, the foreperson notifies the bailiff. The judge calls everyone back into the courtroom, and the foreperson is asked to present the jury’s verdict. The verdict becomes official when it is announced by the foreperson.
Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.