Socioeconomic Factors Influencing Jury Verdicts


The legal and philosophical basis of our jury system requires that the jury be an impartially drawn group of the defendant’s peers. No attempt will be made in thisdiscussion to challenge the desirability of such a jury system. Our purpose is simply tofocus on our jury system as it presently operates and to examine the implications of this operation for the execution of justice.

The roots of the American jury system can be traced to the Norman customs of the ninth century. Originally a jury was made up of local people selected because they had knowledge of the facts. Until the late seventeenth century an accused who felt he was denied a fair verdict could have the verdict tested by the process of attaint. A second panel of twenty-four would rehear the evidence. if the verdict ofthe second panel differed from that of the first, members of the previous jury werefined and imprisoned or had to forfeit property on the ground that they had swornfalsely. Such a procedure was meant to serve as an inducement to impartiality.

The United States Constitution established the English practice of trial by jury asa fundamental right for criminal proceedings. The sixth amendment explicitlystipulates that the jury be impartial, but the selection of jurors to that end represents aproblem that has been part of the jury system since its inception. The United States Supreme Court has established the principle that a jury ought to be a representative cross-section of the community.

The American tradition of trial by jury, considered in connection with eithercriminal or civil proceedings, necessarily contemplates an impartial jury drawnfrom a cross-section of the community…. [This means] that prospective jurors shall be selected without systematic and intentional exclusion of … [economic, racial, political, and geographic] groups.

In Thiel v. Southern Pacific Co. this principle of representation was extended to cover the status of those on the jury.

Wage earners, including those who are paid by the day, constitute a very substantial portion of the community, a portion that can not be intentionally and systematically excluded in whole or in part without doing violence to thedemocratic nature of the jury system. Were we to sanction an exclusion of this nature we would encourage whatever desires those responsible for the selcctionof jury panels may have to discriminate against persons of low economic and social status. We would breathe life into any latent tendencies to establish the jury as the instrument of the economically and socially privileged; that we refuse to do.

Many of our present jury selection methods raise serious questions about the extent to which this principle of representation has been put into practice in our courtrooms. But, if we are to argue with any degree of persuasion that this particular failure to implement a policy articulated by the Supreme Court represents an important problem for the administration of justice, it seems crucial that we first establish the extent to which a jury verdict is actually dependent on the representativeness of the jury.

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