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It can be said that America, as a nation, began in 1781 with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to George Washington at Yorktown. The social, legal and cultural habits of the new nation, however, were primarily descendants of those in Great Britain, brought to America with each succeeding boatload of colonists.

Since colonial days, the courts of the United States have taken their own path, developing and changing to suit the needs and social conscience of the new nation. The following history of the American jury system, the concepts of due process, common law, and the adversary process should further broaden the understanding of the American judicial system.


The Sixth Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees, among other ideas, speedy and public trials, that defendants shall be informed of all charges against them, and a trial by jury. The idea of juries is so closely interwoven with that of the courts, that for most members of the American public, the image of a courtroom means a judge in a black robe, the persuasive legal advocate and the rows of twelve men and women looking on and listening closely to the testimony as it unfolds. Although the United States accounts for 90% of the jury trials held throughout the world today, most of the work conducted in a typical American court takes place without a jury. In Lake County for instance, during 2001, of 189,547 cases disposed of, only 203 were jury trials. The remaining cases were settled out of court, became guilty pleas, or were bench (non-jury) trials.

Juries determine the facts in a trial, the truth or falsehood of testimony, the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants, and the liabilities in a civil trial. In America, juries are still seen as the best tool for ensuring that the rigidity of the rule of law can be shaped to justice in any specific case.

Calling citizens to hear disputes has been known throughout history. Modern day juries are the hybrids of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and European jury customs. English juries have also been a leading influence in shaping the American jury system. The following history of the evolution of the English and American jury system will provide insight and a deeper sense of understanding of this aspect of the criminal justice system.

England, under Alfred (871-901 A.D.) had a rough system of juries. Representatives of tithings were brought together to decide the questions put before them. This system disintegrated on the death of Alfred, although testimony of witnesses did begin to appear. The Normans left partially intact much of the Saxon court system, which included appeals to the King, legal witnesses and ordeals. They did separate temporal and spiritual courts and appointed "circuit" judges to represent the King across the country. They introduced trial by combat as well.

Norman England established the foundations of the modern jury system. It slowly developed for those cases in which trial by combat was inapplicable, usually in less important cases. Local citizens were brought to court to rule on matters they had witnessed. During the reign of Henry II, in the 12th Century, the use of juries increased and defendants were commonly offered the choice of trial by jury or combat. About the year 1350, when Edward III was King, the definition of jurors began to shift. And, by the end of the 15th century, a jury was not a body of witnesses but a body that heard the testimony of witnesses and unanimity became necessary to convict a criminal in a criminal trial.

Between the 15th and 18th Centuries juries evolved more. Trial by "peers" became more real as Knighthood was no longer a requirement for a juror. Expert witnesses began to be used. Exemptions from jury duty were developing, as for Quakers, who could not swear to oaths. Grounds for challenging a juror for cause at common law included the juror having served on the indicting jury, the juror was a serf or servant, the juror has been convicted of certain crimes, the juror was related to one of the parties or the sheriff, or the juror had stated his opinion of the case in public. Eventually defendants were allowed to call witnesses and defense counsel was allowed to cross-examine witnesses.

During American colonial times, the jury became one of the symbols of rebellion against the English King. A primary complaint of the colonists was that they were being denied the rights granted to all other Englishmen, one of which, was the right to a jury trial as guaranteed by the Magna Carta of 1215. The Magna Carta held several references to trials and juries. That the Common Pleas assemblies shall not follow the court (royal court), but be held "in some certain place", and that juries shall consist of "honest men of the neighborhood" were sample references in the Magna Carta.
Trial by jury was not completely denied to the colonists, however. Early charters, such as the Virginia Company, which established Jamestown in 1607, included the mention of such rights. In New York, the jury found John Peter Zenger not guilty of libel in 1735 on the grounds that what he had written about the royal governor was true. Virginia jurors had great latitude in deciding verdicts. They could even bring in verdicts for offenses other than the ones for which a defendant was charged. It was the British Vice-Admiralty courts, sitting without juries, which ignited the ire of the colonists.

In response to these contentions of unfairness and the abrogation of rights, the colonists included in their earliest documents guarantees of the right to trial by jury. The First Congress of American Colonies, in 1765, recommended trials with juries. The First Continental Congress in 1774, declared "that the respective colonies were entitled to the common law of England and more especially to the great and inestimable privilege of being tried by peers of the vicinage, according to the course of that law." In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson listed among the various complaints against King George, that he had "obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers", "made judges dependent on his will for appointment for salary", "depriving us in many cases if the benefits of Trial by Jury", and "transporting (defendants) beyond seas for trial". All these, along with other complaints, led to the United States Constitution in 1787, and in 1897 the first ten amendments.

The jury system is continually changing to meet the needs of modern courts. As the volume of cases filed increases, so does the use of juries. In 2001, the Lake County Circuit Court called 8268 jurors and empanelled 2,712 jurors for trials.

There are two types of jurors- petit and grand. Petit jurors are sworn to hear evidence in civil and criminal trials and render a verdict. "Petit" jurors are designated as such because fewer people sit on a petit jury than on a grand jury. In Lake County, petit jurors are summoned for one week. Grand jurors, on the other hand, have the duty to receive complaints and accusations in criminal cases, hear the evidence presented by the State and find bills of indictment in cases where they are satisfied there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. A grand jury is composed of 16 citizens, and at least 12 members must be present at each session before the grand jury may transact business. Grand jurors in Lake County serve one day a week, for a period of 4 months.

Jury duty is a right and a responsibility of American citizenship. Juries serve several important purposes: (1) they serve as an arbiter regarding the conflict of facts and evidence as presented at criminal and civil trials; (2) they provide a means by which community values and sentiments are injected into the judicial process; and (3) they help to increase the public's acceptance of legal decisions. Jury duty, along with voting, is one of the primary means by which the average citizen participates in our government. Developing a historical appreciation for the role of juries contributes to willingness and ability of citizens to serve as impartial jurors when called to judge their peers. Use of juries is just one thread running through the historical development of the American judicial system.

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