In law, a trial is the presentation of information in a formal setting, usually a court, with the object of determining whether or not a person (or other legal entity such as a corporation) has broken a law.

A jury trial (not to be confused with grand jury proceedings) is a trial where the judge(s) are supplemented by a jury, which is made of citizens who are not, in general, justice professionals. It is most commonly seen in common law jurisdictions, but is also present in some civil law jurisdictions; some civil law jurisdictions also use lay assessors.

The role and importance of jury trials depending on the jurisdiction

  • In most common law jurisidctions, the jury is responsible for findings the facts of the case, while the judge determines the law. These "peers of the accused" are responsible for listening to a dispute, evaluating the evidence presented, deciding on the facts, and making a decision in accordance with the rules of law and their jury instructions. Typically, the jury only judges guilt or innocence, but the actual penalty is set by the judge.
  • In France and countries organized in the same fashion, the jury and several professional judges sit together to determine guilt first, then, if guilt was determined, the appropriate penalty.

Some jurisdictions with jury trials allow the defendant to waive their right to a jury trial, this leading to a bench trial. Jury trials tend to occur only when a crime is considered serious. In some jurisdictions, such as France and Brazil, jury trials are reserved, and compulsory, for the most severe crimes and are not available for civil cases. In Brazil, for example, trials by jury are applied in cases of First and Second-degree murders, even if only attempted. In others, such as the United Kingdom, jury trials are only available for criminal cases and very specific civil cases. In the United States, jury trials are available in both civil and criminal cases.

In the United States, because jury trials tend to be high profile, the general public tends to overestimate the frequency of jury trials; the vast majority of cases are settled by plea bargain which removes the need for a jury trial.

Pros and cons of jury trials

In many nations particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, trials by jury are seen as a check against state power, and the belief is that a jury is likely to be more sympathetic to the defendant than the state is.

This last point may be criticized on grounds that in highly emotional cases, such as child rape, the jury may be tempted to convict based on personal feelings rather than on conviction behind reasonable doubt. Former attorney, then later minister of Justice Robert Badinter remarked about jury trials in France that they were like riding a ship into a storm, because they are much less predictable than bench trials.

Another issue with jury trials is the potential for jurors to be swayed by prejudice, including racial considerations. An infamous case was the 1992 trial in the Rodney King case in California, in which white police officers were acquitted of violently beating a black man by a jury consisting mostly of whites, without any black jurors, despite an incriminating videotape of the action. This led to widespread questioning about the case and riots ensued.

The positive belief about jury trials in the UK and the US contrasts with popular beliefs in many other nations, in which it is considered bizarre and risky for a person's fate to be put into the hands of untrained laymen. Consider Japan, for instance, which used to have optional jury trials for capital or other serious crimes between 1928 and 1943. The defendant could freely choose whether to have a jury or trial by judges, and the decisions of the jury were non-binding. During the Tojo-regime this was suspended, arguably due to the popular belief that any defendant who risks his fate on the opinions of untrained laymen is almost certainly guilty.

The United States

In the United States every person accused of a felony has a constitutional right to a trial by jury, which arises from the 6th amendment that states in part: "In all criminal prosecutions, 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..." Most states' constitutions also grant the right of trial by jury in lesser criminal matters, though most have abrogated that right in offenses punishable by fine only.

Trial procedure

A jury trial starts with the arrest or formal accusation of the defendant when the prosecutor (who represents the government) files an indictment or an information. The defendant is brought before the judge and informed of the charges against him, and usually informed of other rights including the right to counsel from an attorney. After that there is usually a period of preparation for both parties, during which there may be negotiations for a plea bargain, pleadings may be filed or motions made, and any other actions considered prepatory.

On the day of trial the court (or clerk of the court) convenes a panel of members of the public from whom a jury will be selected. Both sides are asked if they are "ready," (a technical term), and if answered in the affirmative the court procedes to voir dire. During voir dire the judge and/or attorneys involved may question the potential jurors to varying degrees depending on the jurisdiction. At the conclusion of the questioning (or sometimes during in certain jurisdictions) the attorneys may request that certain members of the panel not sit on the jury through a "peremptory strike" or a "strike for cause." After the strikes the court impanels the jury by administering an oath. In most jurisdictions the jury consists of 12 jurors (and perhaps one or more alternates) for a felony trial, and six jurors for a misdemeanor trial. The judge will then permit the prosecution and defense to make opening statements.

The prosecutor (except in very rare circumstances) then begins to present their case. Prosecutors go first because they have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime of which they have been accused. The prosecutor may present evidence as simple as one person's testimony, up to and as complicated as months of scientific evidence and expert testimony. Any evidence must be in accordance with the rules of evidence, and all disputes are handled through objections by the opposing party and rulings by the judge. After the prosecutor is finished, she will "rest."

The defendant is then permitted to present evidence in the same manner and form as the prosecutor, but is not required to do anything as the burden of proof rests solely on the prosecutor. The defense will then rest. There may then be a rebuttal by the prosecution (if reserved), and sometimes a rebuttal by the defense.

When both parties have rested, the court will direct them to begin closing statements (also called "summation" in some jurisdictions). The prosecutor goes first, followed by the defense, and then the prosecutor is permitted to speak again. Once again, this is because the prosecution bears the sole burden of proving that the defendant committed the crime, and because of that is allowed to speak first and last.

The jury will then be instructed on the law by the judge in the form of a jury instruction and/or charge. The jury will then be directed to a private room where they will select a foreperson and decide whether the defendant committed the acts of which he was accused. Upon making a determination they will inform the bailif, who will inform the judge.

All parties will be recalled to the courtroom, where the judge will ask the jurors if they have reached a verdict. If they answer in the affirmative the verdict will be read by the judge or clerk or foreperson (depending on jurisdiction). If the verdict is not guilty the defendant will be released (for that charge). If the verdict is guilty the defendant will be sentenced.

In capital cases and other criminal cases (depending on jurisdiction) the jury may be held to determine the sentence for a crime. What follows is a mini-trial or hearing in which the prosecution and defense may present evidence of mitigation and aggravation of the crime, and then have a sentence imposed.

Waiver of jury trial

The vast majority of US criminal cases are not concluded with a jury verdict, but rather by plea bargain. Both prosecutors and defendants often have a strong interest in resolving the criminal case by negotiation.

In United States Federal courts, there is no absolute right to waive a jury trial. Only if the prosecution and the court consent may a defendant have a waiver of jury trial. However, most states give the defendant the absolute right to waive a jury trial.

In the US, trial by jury is also available in many civil cases.

Following the English tradition, U.S. juries have usually been comprised of 12 jurors, and the jury's verdict was required to be unanimous. However, in many jurisdictions, the number of jurors is often reduced to a lesser number (such as six) by legislative enactment, or by agreement of both sides. Some jurisdictions also permit a verdict to be returned despite the dissent of one or two jurors.

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