If you are a citizen of Canada or the United States, it is very likely that you will be summoned at some time for jury duty. A letter will come in the mail, telling you to report to a certain place at a given time. There are legal penalties for not attending, because jury duty is considered every citizen’s responsibility. Often a large number of people, perhaps several hundred, will be summoned at one time.
When you arrive, you will join a line-up of others who are registering for duty. Eventually, you will get to a table and talk to an official. If you have a special reason for not being a juror, such as ill health, you may be excused at this point. Those not immediately exempted become a part of a “jury panel.” Out of this panel, a number of juries of twelve people will be chosen. These will decide a variety of criminal cases over the next few weeks.
What follows is the experience of one woman in a “jury pool.” She went with the others into a large courtroom where they spent the whole day. At the front of the courtroom were the judge, and the lawyers for the prosecution and for the defence. One of the lawyers explained what the case was going to be about. The names of the jury panel were in a box at the front. When someone’s name was called, they went up to the front of the courtroom.
The person called up would then have a chance to explain why they couldn’t serve as a juror, if there was some reason preventing them. For example, one woman was dismissed because she knew the accused. The first jury to be chosen was for a burglary case. A panel member went forward and faced the accused. Then the lawyers in the trial decided whether the juror was satisfactory to them. At lunchtime, the panel was dismissed for an hour.
The second jury was to try someone on a charge of murder. Usually the panel was told approximately how long the trial might be. Since jurors are not usually paid, many would like to avoid being involved in a long trial. The woman was called forward and had to look the man accused of murder in the eye. This made her quite nervous. Judging by her expression, the two lawyers would decide whether they wanted her on the jury or not. The defence lawyer would try to choose someone who seemed sympathetic to the man accused. The prosecutor would prefer someone who was not sympathetic. The woman excused herself by saying that she had a very young child to look after and no relatives to help. She was allowed to go home at the end of the day.
Some people wonder whether it is fair for lawyers to dismiss jurors who may not be sympathetic to their cases. For example, defence lawyers may try to choose young people if they think that these will be less severe to their clients. In the case above, the lawyer seemed to prefer women to men. This means that a lot of people are dismissed from being jurors without a good reason.
One principle of the jury system, however, is to protect the rights of the accused particularly well. One might say that the jury system is biased in favour of the defendant. This is why defence lawyers have an opportunity to dismiss people who they think will not be favourable to their clients.
Furthermore, having twelve jurors gives the defence a good opportunity for a successful defence. If the defence attorney can raise a reasonable doubt about the guilt of his client in even one juror, then the accused has a chance of being released. This happened in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. There, even though there was strong evidence that Simpson committed the crime, the defence was able to insinuate some doubts among the jurors. Moreover, the defence lawyers may be able to appeal to the emotions of the jurors, particularly if they can think of a way to gain sympathy for their client.
For this reason, defence lawyers are more likely to choose trial by jury over trial by judge alone. A judge is less likely to be swayed by emotion than a jury. And a defence attorney may also prefer a criminal trial to a civil suit. In the latter case, the client does not have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but will be found liable if the preponderance of evidence is against him or her. This is why O.J. Simpson was acquitted on criminal charges, but then found liable for damages in a civil suit.