#StrictlyLegal: The Role of Juries in America

george floyd trial
In this image from video, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, testifies as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides over court Monday, April 12, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, in the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

The current trial of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd has drawn significant attention in the African and Caribbean communities. Floyd, an unarmed Black man was killed on the streets of Minnesota in May of 2020. 

As the trial is in its third week, the presiding judge has indicated closing arguments could begin next week, the week of April 19, which means the jury could also get the case next week, with the highly anticipated verdict delivered by the jury soon after.

As in the case of other criminal trials, with the case presented by the prosecution and defense, the focus will on the jury as they deliberate and as they prepare to give the verdict.

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With this focus on the jury and its pending decision, the following is a synopsis of the role of juries in American criminal and civil cases.

Juror Selection

Each district court randomly selects citizens’ names from lists of registered voters and people with driver’s licenses who live in that district to serve on juries. The people randomly selected complete a questionnaire to help determine if they are qualified to serve on a jury. Those qualified are randomly chosen to be summoned to appear for jury duty. This selection process helps to make sure that jurors represent a cross-section of the community, without regard to race, gender, national origin, age, or political affiliation.

Jury Pool to Jury Box
Being summoned for jury service does not guarantee that a person will actually serve on a jury. When a jury is needed for a trial, the group of qualified jurors is taken to the courtroom where the trial will take place. The judge and the attorneys then ask the potential jurors questions to determine their suitability to serve on the jury. This process is called voir dire. The purpose of voir dire is to exclude from the jury people who may not be able to decide the related case fairly. 

Members of the jury panel who know any person involved in the case, who have information about the case, or who may have strong prejudices about the people or issues involved in the case, typically will be most likely excused by the judge. The attorneys also may exclude a certain number of jurors without giving a reason.

Types of Cases Heard by Juries

There are two types of judicial proceedings in the federal courts that use juries.

  1. Criminal trial: An individual is accused of committing a crime that is considered against society as a whole. Twelve people, and alternates, make up a criminal jury. A unanimous decision must be reached before a defendant is found “guilty.” The government must prove the crime was committed “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
    • Guilty pleas and plea negotiations reduce the need for juries in criminal cases.
    • If the 12 member jury cannot reach a verdict after several attempts the case will be regarded as a mistrial, and the jury a ‘hung jury.’ When this occurs, in most cases a new trial will be necessary.
  2. Civil trial: Litigants seek remedies for private wrongs that don’t necessarily have a broader social impact. At least six people make up a civil jury. The jury must come to a unanimous decision unless specified otherwise. The standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence,” or “more true than not.”
    • Settlement negotiations reduce the need for juries in civil cases.

Working Together: Judge and Jury

The judge determines the appropriate law that should be applied to the case and the jury finds the facts in the case based on what is presented to them during the proceedings.

At the end of a trial, the judge instructs the jury on the applicable law. While the jury must obey the judge’s instructions as to the law, the jury alone is responsible for determining the facts of the case.