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Exploring the Right to a Trial by Jury

Introduction

Trial by jury is one of many key concepts of American's freedoms assured by the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. A jury is a group of persons selected by law to determine a verdict in a court case. Generally, juries consist of six to twelve citizens, and their purpose is to ensure the justice system gives each person or entity a fair trial. In most cases, the power of government cannot take away an individual's rights unless he or she is found guilty by a jury. True democracy would not be complete without trial by jury.

Under the sixth and seventh amendments to the U.S. constitution, citizens have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers in most criminal and civil cases. The selection of a jury requires a number of steps.

  1. The court draws up a list of prospective jurors (often from a list of voter registrants or driver's license holders)
  2. The court then cuts the list by disqualifying jurors who don't meet the requirements. A juror must:
    • be a US citizen
    • live in the judicial district
    • not be facing or convicted of a felony
    • have a competent use of the English language
  3. From the list of qualified people, the court calls a random selection to report for jury duty.
  4. The potential jurors wait to be called in for a trial.
  5. When a trial is ready to be heard, groups of jurors, more than the required amount, are sent to the court room.
  6. One by one these potential jurors are asked a series of questions to determine if either attorney wants them as a juror.
  7. The attorneys select 6–12 juries they feel are impartial peers to sit and listen to the evidence in the case to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused person.

In this lesson, students will explore the importance of fair trials and the difficulties inherent in maintaining impartiality in a trial by jury system. In small groups, students will discuss key concepts of our judicial system. Then they will determine if our system is fair and impartial.

Objectives

In this lesson, students:

  • Define key terms related to courts and juries
  • Explain the importance of the rights American citizens have when on trial
  • Explain the purpose and importance of juries
  • Determine the difficulties inherent in keeping trials impartial

Materials

Strategy

  1. Discuss with students the following questions:
    • What is a jury?
    • Why do we have trial by jury?
    • What do jurors do?
    • How are you selected to serve on a jury?
  2. Introduce the six key terms of the placards (impartial, double jeopardy, jury of peers, self incrimination, search and seizure, and due process). Ask students what they already know about these terms. Using the Glossary for guidance, provide definitions or add to their knowledge based on what they come up with.
  3. Place the students into groups of six and have them sit in a circle. Place one placard in the center of each group. Assign one student to be the recorder for the group. A new recorder should be assigned with the passing of each placard. Therefore, each student has a job during the activity.
  4. Have each group read over the questions on the back of the placard. The recorder should write down the group's answers to their discussion.
  5. Give each group about five minutes to discuss each placard before they pass it on and receive a new placard.
  6. Once each group has finished all the placards, bring the class together and discuss their findings. Ask students: is our justice system fair and impartial? Why or why not? Refer to the Primary Source of the month or other famous trials as material for discussion.

Lesson Extensions

Have students watch news shows and court programs, read the newspaper, and browse websites to look for evidence of the ideas presented in this lesson: trial by jury, the rights of the accused, search warrants, etc. They should then write a summary of their findings and share them with the class.

Watch this vodcast or listen to this podcast with your students to learn more about the importance of trial by jury.

This lesson was written by Allison Straker, Vancouver, WA, and Andy Rodgers, Parker, CO.

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