The Right to Trial by Jury
The institution of the jury, so long a basic element of the American judicial process, has roots which actually extend back many, many years. In fact, by the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified, juries had been a part of English law for centuries.
The jury was instituted by Frankish conquerors to discover the king's right. Henry II made juries a regular part of the justice system in England when he established them to aid his royal control over the machinery of justice. At first the jury was essentially a body of witnesses, called for their knowledge of the particular case being tried. However, during the reign of Henry VI, the jury actually became the trier of evidence.
The colonists in America felt that the right to trial by jury was one of the most important safeguards a free man could enjoy. This was reflected in the fact that the right was guaranteed in the constitutions of the original 13 states, and again in the Sixth Amendment. Missouri's Constitution also notes this right, saying, "That in criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to . . . a speedy public trial by an impartial jury of the county."
Although the various state constitutions made mention of this right, there was freedom among the states to apply those provisions in any manner they wished. Only the federal government was bound by the guarantee of trial by jury, with the states left free to follow their respective constitutions and laws on the subject.
However, the U. S. Supreme Court decided in a landmark 1968 case that the Sixth Amendment was binding on the states, also. That case, Duncan v. Louisiana, involved a black youth by the name of Gary Duncan, who was convicted of simple battery in Louisiana. In that state the offense was a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of two years in jail and a $300 fine.
Duncan tried to obtain a trial by jury, but at that time the Louisiana Constitution only granted jury trials in cases where capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor could be imposed. Duncan was convicted and sentenced by the judge to 60 days and a $150 fine. He sought review all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, but that court found "no error of law in the ruling complained of" and refused to hear the case.
Finally, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the states were also bound by the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a jury "in all criminal prosecutions." This, however, is not an absolute guarantee. The court has found this right to apply only in situations where the crime is a serious one. Petty offenses are not included. If the offense carries a potential sentence of more than six months, it is a serious offense, and a jury must be made available on demand.
Like most rights, trial by jury can be waived. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements for waiver. In federal courts, the right to trial by jury can be waived by the accused if he does so expressly and intelligently. A defendant may decide to go to trial before a judge alone.
It used to be the court's position that the right to a jury trial meant "a trial by jury as understood and applied at common law, and includes all the essential elements as they were recognized in this country and England when the Constitution was adopted." In the old common law of England, this always meant a 12-man jury reaching a unanimous verdict.
In 1970 some of this changed. In a case called Williams v. Florida, the court found that fixing a jury to a size of 12 was merely an historical accident which was not required by English common law or by the intent of the framers of the Constitution.
The court reasoned that a 12-person jury did not give the defendant any greater advantage than a six-man jury, and that the size of the jury bore no relation to its function. The court did say that a jury should be large enough to promote group deliberation, free from outside attempts at intimidation, and to provide a fair possibility that a cross-section of the community will be represented on it.
Two years later the court questioned the necessity of a unanimous verdict in each case. In Apodaca v. Oregon, a divided court held that the Constitution was not violated by a conviction on a 9-3 vote of a jury. If the respective state law provided, it could be some other ratio (such as 11-1, 10-2 or 9-3), but the court did not specify how low the ratio could constitutionally go.
Such interpretations of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial are part of the process whereby the American legal and judicial system defines the limits of the law. And, like all such rights coming under scrutiny, the right to a jury trial remains a basic element of our nationís legal heritage.