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June 5, 2018

Lesson 14: Trial by Jury

The framers feared a government that would subject citizens to criminal prosecutions in distant locales with juries unknowledgeable and unsympathetic to defendants’ local mores

The Framers of the Bill of Rights were didactically specific when it came to the right to trial by jury. They seemed determined to root this ancient English practice firmly in American soil, and by and large that purpose has been fulfilled (while in England jury trials have become uncommon).

Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution concerning the federal judiciary, states “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution gets even more specific.

“In all criminal prosecutions,” the Amendment begins, “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed; which district shall have been previously ascertained by law …”
The Framers were very much aware that their nascent republic was a nation of cultural variety, of different cultural attitudes and religious beliefs, and they feared a government that would subject citizens to criminal prosecutions in distant locales with juries unknowledgeable and unsympathetic to defendants’ local mores.

In time the Supreme Court also became concerned about jury composition in trials in which black defendants were judged by all-white juries—because the jury pools were based on voter rolls which excluded blacks from participation. This was one of the concerns the Court expressed in overturning convictions in the Scottsboro Boys case of Powell v. Alabama in 1932. The Supreme Court many times overturned verdicts where there was evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection.

In the 2017 case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a divided Court overturned a conviction of harassment and sexual misconduct, and in the process recognized an exception to the “no impeachment” rule that jury verdicts should not be overturned by subsequent evidence of jury deliberations. In this case, one juror came forward after the verdict was entered and claimed that another juror indicated prejudice against Hispanics. It is not clear whether this limited exception to the no-impeachment rule will result in overturning large numbers of verdicts; it is likely to increase scrutiny of possible jurors for evidence of racial discrimination.

June 5, 2018