In a jury trial, the outcome of a case is decided by a panel of one’s peers. In the criminal context, the right to a jury trial is provided by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury. In the civil context, a jury trial is not guaranteed but rather it must be properly demanded during the pre-trial phase of litigation.
A jury is usually comprised of twelve people whose role is to sift through the evidence presented in a court case and resolve any factual discrepancies. In other words, the jury sits as the fact finder in a court case. The jury is selected from a pool of potential jurors during a phase of trial called “voir dire” during which attorneys on both sides of the case question the potential jurors under oath in order to determine their ability to serve as impartial jurors.
At the beginning of a court case, the presiding judge will give the jury some preliminary instructions about their role as fact finder, but the majority of instructions will be given after all of the evidence has been presented. Once the evidence is closed, the jury must apply the law as instructed by the judge to the facts of the case. The jury must also resolve any factual discrepancies and reach a unanimous verdict.
Jurors serve different functions in civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, they typically must determine liability by a standard of a preponderance of the evidence. In the event that a jury makes a determination of liability, then the jury must determine whether or not an award of damages is warranted. In the criminal context, a jury must determine guilt by a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a higher standard than the one used in civil cases. Also, in criminal cases, the jury’s role typically concludes with the determination of guilt because sentencing (except in death penalty cases) is determined by the presiding judge.
In both the criminal and civil arenas, jury trials are comprised of complicated evidentiary procedures, legal burdens and court rules. Additionally, more often than not, the stakes are high.