What is the Right to Trial by Jury?

In many cases in the United States, a person convicted of a crime is entitled to a right to trial by jury. This means that a group of citizens, in most cases twelve people, will listen to both sides of the debate — prosecution and defense — and determine if the accused party is guilty or not guilty of one or more crimes. Once both sides have been presented, the jury will convene to discuss the facts. A judge then listens to the findings from the jury members, and then the judge sentences the guilty based upon local, state or federal law guidelines.

Most aspects of the right to trial by jury are found within the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Article Three of the Constitution states that "the trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury." The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states that the accused person "shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial." The Seventh Amendment applies the right to trial by jury to civil cases as well as criminal cases, so long as the "value in controversy exceeds twenty dollars."


Whereas these statutes of right to trial by jury apply to federal law, the rights were expanded to include state laws in the Fourteenth Amendment. In cases where the proposed penalty is less than six months incarceration, however, the Supreme Court ruled that a state has the right to prosecute without a jury. Defendants also can elect to waive their right to trial by jury.

The type of jurors can have a significant impact on the trial process and the verdict. Therefore, a defendant may wish to have what is known as a jury of peers, or members with political views or socioeconomic situations similar to their own. Despite the phrase "jury of peers" appearing nowhere in the Constitution or its Amendments, most have come to associate this right with the Fourteenth Amendment’s declaration of "equal protection of the laws."

Jury decisions in criminal cases must be unanimous. If all jury members cannot agree on a verdict, the result is a hung jury and the release of the accused person or persons. The prosecution must then determine if there is enough evidence to re-try the accused for the same crime(s). In a civil case, the jury must simply have a majority in order to render a verdict.

To be selected for a jury, one must have filled out a voter registration card or applied for a driver’s license. Juries are typically selected from a pool of these citizens. The prosecution and the defense have the right to cast out potential jury members during a process known as voir dire before the trial begins.



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