History of The Right To A Trial By Jury
The right to a jury is one of the most common rights next to voting. It is something that is such a normal part of the fabric of our society, and it is a cornerstone of our democracy. Written into the bill of rights, the right to a trial by a jury is a right that allows one to maintain their property, life, and liberty unless a group of their peers decides otherwise using common sense and data provided by lawyers. This right is so powerful, that US citizens are required to do jury duty, which makes the act important and very consequential.
It is often that we see news surrounding a verdict passed down by a jury on a big case that made a national headline. Movies have also been made solely about jury’s. The movie 12 Angry Men, for example, focuses on a jury’s deliberation on a case. We also see juries portrayed on television shows. But how did the notion of a jury and the right to trial by a jury come to pass, that it became such an indelible part of the American way?
According to American Bar, “The American jury system has its origins in medieval England.” The publication goes on to state. “The Anglo-Saxon kings who ruled England from the 6th to the 11th centuries and the Normans who conquered England in 1066 used various legal procedures that provided possible models for the jury.” It seems to make sense then that our roots in right to trial by a jury, originally stems from the country that colonized America. As certain religions followed colonization, it seems that the right to trial by jury also did.
King Henry the second of England was the true innovator, however. He came up with a system to help with land disputes. He instituted a policy where twelve free and lawful men were under oath. These men would state who was the true owner or heir of the property in question. This is the basis on which modern jury’s are based. The only difference is that King Henry’s juries had to come to court with knowledge of what had happened as opposed to today where they Jurors are informed by the lawyers of the facts. Henry did eventually introduce the idea of a presenting jury in which they would hear the facts. This is what we now know today.
The penalties in England were harsh. Records show that most penalties resulted in death. This is where juries became influential. They became seen as protectors of the innocent. Juries would punish serious criminals with death, but other lesser criminals would get whipped or branded, which were much lighter penalties.
Over the next several centuries the role of the jury shifted. It went from having to bring in facts to being presented facts. At these times, juries could bring personal biases and beliefs to the deliberation as well. It was in the colonization of American by the British that juries began to take on bigger roles. The British had a law that stated that any trade done with the colonies had to use British ships. When the law was broken, jurors in the colonies would not punish the accused because they did not think the law was just. Thus, the British started to create special courts that did not use a jury. This would become a major charge in the case for the American Revolution. In the Declaration of Independence, one of the charges is not allowing many cases a jury.
Once the revolution was over, the battle over juries still existed. In writing the Constitution, it only guaranteed the right to trial by jury for criminal cases. However, there was no mention of the right to trial for civil cases. There would be those who argued that such a right should be added to the Constitution. They were known as Anti-Federalist. The Constitution was eventually ratified with a demand from the states that citizens receive the right to trial in civil and criminal cases. This was assured with the sixth and seventh amendments to the Constitution.
By no means was the idea of an equal jury realized until the 1970s when women were given the right to be on trials. Until then, blacks were initially excluded from juries, which consisted of all white men. Eventually, blacks were allowed on a jury with no restrictions or proof that they were fit to serve during the civil rights movement.
The juries we know today were formed through innovation as a way to solve disputes, colonization, revolution, and civil rights movements. With such a long and winding history, the next time you are asked to serve jury duty, feel proud that you are a part of a continuing history and legacy that allows people due process, which without, penalties may be most certainly death.