Pop Civ 6: Juries in American Trials


Courtroom for the Derek Chauvin Trial

People around the country and world are watching in real time our nation’s judicial system at work in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis City Police Officer accused of the murder of George Floyd, a man in custody and restrained by a 9-minute use of force hold at the time of his death.

Like many other high profile cases, this trial is being televised, streamed, and highly covered in all forms of media. While we are familiar seeing courtroom settings in our favorite television shows and films, we may have questions about  the way the different parts of the system function in cases like these. 

One of the most important facets of a courtroom trial is the jury. In a case like the Derek Chauvin trial, the jury will be responsible for deciding whether or not Chauvin is guilty of the three charges against him: second-degree unintentional felony murder, third-degree “depraved mind” murder, and second-degree manslaughter. To understand how this trial by jury process originated, we have to dive deep into ancient history.

Jury Trials

The concepts behind jury trials date back to antiquity. The ancient Greeks and Romans used tribunals of citizens to evaluate cases against accused individuals, but those dikastai (Greek) and commitia (Roman) assemblies could count into the hundreds, if not thousands, rather than the twelve individuals seen in American courtrooms today. The origins of contemporary American juries can be traced back to English Common Law of the middle ages. By the 12th century, the English had established that juries of twelve “free men” would be convened to settle land disputes, and trial by jury was included as a key right in the Magna Carta, written in 1215. 

By the time of the American Revolution, even British colonies were accustomed to the process of a jury trial. In fact, one of the complaints colonists lodged against King George III was that he denied his subjects the right to trial by jury as promised to them as British citizens. When establishing a new government, authors of the Constitution enshrined the right to a trial by jury, whether in civil or criminal cases, in both the original text of the Constitution (Article III, Section 2) and in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments.

Jurors listening to counsel, Supreme Court, new City Hall, New York. Winslow Homer, 1869, wood engraving

In 1968, the Supreme Court further reinforced the importance of a citizen’s right to a trial by jury in Duncan v. Louisiana, with its majority opinion stating: 

“Providing an accused with the right trial by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge.”

The process of serving on a jury is now a common facet of society. Petit juries (or trial juries) are usually made up of six to 12  individuals asked to come to a unanimous consensus about a defendant’s innocence or guilt. While some states will permit a less than unanimous verdict in certain cases, federal criminal proceedings require full unanimity of their juries. But before evidence can be reviewed and a verdict found, members of a jury have to be summoned and selected.  

Many of us have received a jury summons, sent by local district courts to a random selection of individuals in that region. After receiving their initial summons, potential jurors are required to complete a survey that determines their general eligibility to serve. After that screening, qualified individuals will be asked to report for juror selection. Simply receiving a jury summons does not necessarily mean you will be chosen to serve on a jury for a particular trial.

In every trial, prosecution and defense attorneys engage in the voir dire process, where each side questions potential jurors to establish their suitability to serve on the jury in that specific case. Attorneys for the prosecution and defense may both dismiss a set number of potential jurors without giving a reason. Additionally, judges will excuse any individual who knows the people involved in the case, has personal knowledge about the events of the case, or has any prejudice in one way or another related to the case.

After the twelve members of the jury are selected, each individual is sworn in and tasked with using the evidence presented during the trial to come to a conclusion about the defendant’s guilt or innocence. In a civil trial, juries determine whether a defendant is “liable” or “not liable” rather than “guilty” or “not guilty.”

While the jury itself is responsible for evaluating the evidence in the case, the judge for a trial is still a key component in the judicial process. The judge will determine what evidence may be submitted by the prosecution or defense, and can instruct the jury to disregard any information that they believe is inadmissible. In short, the jury is not expected to suddenly gain extensive legal knowledge simply because they have been selected to sit in a jury box. The judge is present to provide legal guidance and context to help the jury in their evaluation of evidence, and is responsible for sentencing the defendant after a guilty or liable verdict is reached. 

Over the course of the trial, attorneys for the prosecution and defense will present their cases to the jury. After both sides rest, the jury is given time to deliberate over the evidence they have received. Some juries deliberate for mere hours or minutes, while others take weeks to reach a verdict. After a decision is reached, the foreperson or presiding juror reads the verdict before the court, and the defendant (if found guilty or liable) is sentenced by the judge.

A verdict being delivered by a jury foreperson.


  • Q: What does the Constitution say about juries?

    A: The Constitution outlines the right to a trial by jury in several places:

    Article III, Section 2, Clause 3
    The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.

    Fifth Amendment:
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    Sixth Amendment:
    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, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

    Seventh Amendment:
    In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

  • Q: What if a jury can’t come to a unanimous verdict?

    A: If a jury does not have enough votes to reach a unanimous verdict, the result is a hung jury. In these instances, the court can choose to declare a mistrial for any count on which the jury cannot come to agreement. In cases where a mistrial is called, the government body that brought charges against the defendant can elect to retry the case with a new jury. In all federal court cases, civil and criminal, juries must achieve unanimity for their verdicts. In some state courts, non-unanimous verdicts in civil cases have been accepted.

  • Q: How is a grand jury different from a standard jury?

    A: Unlike a petit jury, tasked with determining guilt or innocence, a grand jury is convened to determine whether there is enough probable cause to believe that a crime was committed. A few other differences include the evidentiary requirements (much more relaxed in a grand jury trial, permitting circumstantial or hearsay evidence to be admitted), defense participation (defendants and their attorneys may not be present for a grand jury trial) and the number of jurors selected (up to 23 individuals can be impaneled for a grand jury, rather than the six to 12 for a petit jury).

  • Q: What does it mean when a jury is sequestered?

    A: Juries are sequestered, or isolated, when the court believes they could be at risk of outside influence that could impact their ability to impartially evaluate the evidence before them. In the Derek Chauvin trial, for instance, defense attorneys requested that jurors be fully sequestered after the April 11, death of an African American man during a police-involved shooting in nearby Brooklyn Center, MN. Following that incident, a series of protests erupted in the surrounding area. The defense argued that exposure to media coverage about the event could unfairly influence the jury’s fear of civil unrest in the region. Judge Peter A. Cahill denied that request, indicating it would be practically impossible to limit the jury from accessing all media, including social media. While jurors currently remain only partially sequestered (they are permitted to return to their homes at night), Judge Cahill had already specified that the jury will enter full sequestration for their deliberation.

  • Q: How are juries used in other countries?

    A: Like the United States, some countries that were once British Colonies feature a right to trial by jury in their court systems, based on English Common Law. Canada and Australia, as examples, feature characteristics in their legal systems, such as jury trials, similar to the United States. Other nations, though, eschew the use of juries either in particular instances or overall in courtroom proceedings. In Russia, individuals charged with “anti-state” criminal offenses had their right to trial by jury stripped in 2008. Brazil’s constutition outlines that only the most serious crimes (murder, abortion, infanticide, and similar offenses) can be judged by juries. In Sweden, only cases involving the issues around freedom of the press have been subject to trial by jury; in other civil and criminal cases, “lay judges” appointed by local authorities are called to evaluate cases alongside professional judges.

Juries in the Media

Twelve Angry Men, 1956

A still shot from Twelve Angry Men.

Depictions of jury trials are ubiquitous in popular culture. Every television network, streaming platform, and major movie studio has produced content that depicts some version of a courtroom experience, but often those stories focus on the attorney’s or judge’s experience, rather than that of a jury. That said, one of the most famous cinematic representations of a judicial process is an intimate examination of a jury’s deliberation in a murder trial.

Twelve Angry Men, a 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet and based on a teleplay of the same name, follows the process of 12 jurors as they deliberate the fate of an 18-year-old defendant. Instructed by a judge to remember that if there is any reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt, they must find the defendant not guilty, the jury retreats to the deliberation room to discuss their perspectives. 

Over the course of the 96-minute film, the 12 jurors discuss the details of the case presented to them during the trial, arguing about evidence, motive, and personal perspectives. After an agonizing debate, the jury eventually comes to a unanimous verdict of 

Among the film’s fans is current Supreme Court Justice, Sonya Sotomayor, who credited the movie with sparking her interest in the legal profession. While remarking that the narrative contains factual errors about some of the events it depicts, Sotomayor nevertheless stated at a 2010 screening that the film’s reverence for the American justice system inspired her to pursue law school while she was an undergraduate.

The Longest Sequestration in U.S. History

The O.J.Simpson Trial, 1994-95

The mug shot taken of O.J. Simpson on June 17, 1994.

While the jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial are only partially sequestered, there are occasions in which judges have decided that a jury must be fully sequestered to protect them from outside influence. The logistics for more extensive sequestrations involve quite a bit of wrangling, and have often gained significant notice in the press. 

The longest jury sequestration in an American trial was for the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which stretched over 11 months between 1994 and 1995. Even before the trial began, the jury was subjected to intense scrutiny. More than 300 potential jurors were required to complete a 75-page survey about their backgrounds, with questions about their experiences with domestic violence and interracial marriage, among other topics. Twelve individuals were selected, with 12 alternates standing by in the event a juror needed to be dismissed. At the outset of the trial, Judge Lawrence Ito asked that all 24 individuals (jurors and alternate jurors) be fully sequestered and gave them only two days to prepare for a stay in an undisclosed location.  They had no idea they would remain sequestered for a total of 265 days. 

Over those 11 months, the jurors were kept at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Los Angeles. A group of rooms clustered together on the 15th floor of the hotel were secured, and the main elevator was programmed to avoid stopping on that floor. Any juror who left the building was required to request a security escort and use a service elevator. While the rooms did have televisions and phones, members of the jury were prohibited from using them during their stay. 

After the marathon trial concluded, jurors used their home base at the Hotel Inter-Continental as a location for a gathering to celebrate the end of their confinement. While they weren’t facing the same penalties as the defendant in the case, many members of the jury felt the nearly year-long period away from their families was a difficult challenge to withstand.

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