Serving As a Juror

What to do when you're summoned for jury duty?

A jury is a group of citizens empowered by the law to pass judgment on the behavior of others. A jury examines the evidence presented in court, determines the facts of the case based upon that evidence, and decides whether to deny or grant a civil claim or (in criminal cases) whether to convict an accused criminal or acquit him.

Potential jurors are selected in a variety of ways, depending on the particular jurisdiction. In most cases, the names of jurors are drawn from a list of persons registered to vote, or who have valid driver's licenses. From this list, the names of potential jurors are drawn, and they are then issued a summons to appear at the courthouse for jury duty.

In some states, statutes automatically exempt certain people from serving as jurors. Government officials, convicted criminals, and judges are often exempted from serving as jurors by these statutes. And every jurisdiction allows other persons called for jury duty to apply for an exemption. Exemptions from jury duty are based on cause, such as illness, important family obligations, or because the person called to jury duty performs an important public function, such as by serving as a firefighter or police officer.

However, exemptions from jury duty are not granted lightly, and the person who is not excused but who simply fails to appear for jury duty as scheduled can be charged with criminal contempt of court. If the person is found guilty, a fine, imprisonment, or both can be imposed as punishment.

Much of your time as a juror will be spent in a jury room, where you will wait with other potential jurors to be called to serve on a jury panel for a specific trial. A jury panel is generally chosen at random from the larger group of jurors in the jury room. The jurors who will hear a particular trial are picked from the jury panel. Those who are not chosen to serve may be asked to return to the pool to be considered for inclusion on another jury panel, or they may be excused from further duty until the next time they are summoned.

To select the specific jurors who will hear evidence and render a verdict in a trial, an oral examination by the judge and the attorneys for both parties is conducted. This examination is called the "voir dire," an old French term meaning "to speak the truth. This examination is used to decide if there are any reasons why you should not be permitted to hear the case to be tried. This is referred to as being "excused for cause."

For example, you may be excused from serving if you know one of the parties in the proceeding, or if you have seen or read news accounts of the matter that would affect your ability to act impartially in considering the evidence. And in addition to being excluded for cause, each side has a number of what are called "peremptory challenges," which they can use to exclude jurors without giving any reason for doing so.

The voir dire process continues until a full jury has been "empaneled," or selected to hear the case. Although by statute some states still require the empaneling of 12 jurors to hear any trial by jury, other states empanel juries consisting of six to eight members.

Once you are selected to serve on a jury, you will be seated in the jury box in the courtroom. As a juror, it is your task to listen closely to the testimony presented in the courtroom. You will be warned by the judge not to discuss the case until the trial is over, even with other jurors. This rule is essential in order to prevent jurors from evaluating evidence before the case is completely presented and all the parties have had a chance to tell their version of the events to the court.

You will also be advised not to read newspaper articles, listen to radio programs or watch television newscasts that deal with the trial in which you are serving as a juror. You are to consider only the evidence presented in the courtroom, without regard for any information that could be obtained from other sources.

After you have heard all of the evidence and been instructed by the judge regarding the law in the case at hand, you and your fellow jurors will retire to a room where you will attempt to reach a verdict. A jury foreman will be selected to preside over the jury's deliberations. In some jurisdictions, jurors elect the person who serves as foreman, while in others the judge may appoint the foreman, or the task falls to the first juror selected.

As a juror, you should listen openly to the views of the other jurors about the facts of the case as they understand them. You should not hesitate to express your own opinions about what you have heard in the courtroom. If you have a question about some testimony, or if you need to see certain evidence, you can ask the bailiff assigned to guard you from outside interference to send a request to the judge. Whether or not you will receive the material you request will depend on what you are asking for and the law in the jurisdiction.

In some cases, jurors have little trouble reaching a decision in a short period of time. In other cases, significant differences of opinion may exist. When there are differences among the jurors, it is important to remember that it is the first responsibility of you and your fellow jurors to try to come to a fair decision.

In most criminal cases, the jury must unanimously agree to a verdict before returning it to the court. However, in many jurisdictions, civil cases may be decided by a majority vote of the jurors, so the prospect of a hung jury is unlikely.

Once the jury has reached its decision, it will return to the court and announce its verdict. Once the verdict is announced, the jurors will be thanked by the court and excused. In most states, jurors who have completed hearing a case will be allowed to return to their everyday lives. In a few states, however, jurors may be empaneled on more than one jury during the period for which they have been called.

Many people view the prospect of being called for jury duty with just about the same level of enthusiasm they reserve for dental surgery conducted without benefit of anesthesia. Others fear that their employers will refuse to let them serve, or fire them if they do.

Regarding the first concern, there isn't much that can be said to convince people otherwise when they believe that jury duty is a burden to be avoided if at all possible. In many instances, these people are right. Being called for jury duty can disrupt your life for days, weeks, or even months, and many of the cases juries hear are less than fascinating.

On the other hand, it might be a good idea to look at jury duty from a somewhat different point of view, by putting yourself in the shoes of the parties to a lawsuit or a person accused of a crime. In that situation, you would want your case heard by interested and attentive jurors who recognize the importance of what they're doing in deciding your fate.

As for the concern that an employer will fire you for responding to a summons to jury duty, the laws in nearly every state specifically prohibit this practice. And many employers, recognizing the important work a jury does, will even continue to pay employees during the time they are serving on a jury, although they usually subtract the amount the worker receives from the court for jury service.

Published in Law FAQs
Tuesday, 06 April 2010 06:17

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