A jury is a group of people empowered to make findings of fact and render a verdict for a trial. The judge decides questions of law, including whether particular items of evidence will be presented to the jury. The parties may, however, request a bench trial, where the judge decides issues of fact and law.
The United States Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to a jury trial. Under Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court limited the right to a jury generally only to crimes that carry a penalty of more than six months imprisonment. The Seventh Amendment preserves the right of a jury for civil cases in federal court, but, unlike the Sixth Amendment, has not been incorporated to require state courts to provide jury trials in civil cases. Most states guaranty juries for civil trials on their own, however.
In federal court and most state courts, a jury consists of 12 members, although smaller juries are constitutionally acceptable. For example, in Williams v. Florida, 399 U.S. 78 (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a six-person jury as constitutional. Generally, a jury verdict in federal court must be unanimous. Parties to a case may agree to waive their jury rights at any time before a verdict is returned, for example, under Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 23.
Judges and the parties determine who sits on the jury prior to court by selecting from the jury panel. The judge will question prospective jurors to determine if any jurors are unqualified to sit on the jury, for example, because they exhibit bias. Parties also may exclude individual jurors prior to trial by exercising peremptory challenges. Under Baston v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), however, they may not exclude jurors on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.
Absent fraud, a jury verdict is final. Jury deliberations will not be scrutinized or reviewed, or their verdict overturned. This is true even when jury nullification is suspected; i.e., even when the jury is suspected to have purposefully rejected the judge’s instructions or the evidence presented.
See also: Grand jury and Hung jury
[Last updated in April of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]