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Viewpoint: Juries entrusted with important, wide-ranging roles

A reader again asked a great question: Why are there so many different types of juries?

Juries vary by their size, purpose, and the types of cases that they hear. The most misunderstood jury is the grand jury.  Its name refers only to the number of people serving as jurors.  A grand jury is made up of 16-23 citizens convened by the county attorney to determine whether or not probable cause exists to charge someone with a crime. Typically grand juries are only called to consider charges of first-degree murder or of misconduct of a public officer.

If the grand jury finds probable cause it issues a document known as an indictment. The indictment outlines the charges and starts a criminal case against a defendant.

All other juries — which are the ones we usually think of — are known as petit juries (pronounced “petty”). The word “petit” is from the French word meaning small. It refers to the smaller number of jurors serving; not to the importance of what they do. Petit juries in criminal cases are organized and work differently than juries in civil cases.

Criminal case jurors must be unanimously convinced of a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting. The words “convinced” and “convicted” derive from the same Latin word meaning “to overcome decisively.” Even one juror who is not convinced will prevent a conviction. In felony and gross misdemeanor criminal cases juries have 12 people.  Misdemeanor juries have six people.

In addition to the regular jurors, alternate jurors are selected to be available in case a juror can’t complete the trial. If that happens then the alternate becomes a regular juror. Only the parties and the court know which jurors are the alternates until the end of the trial. In criminal cases alternates are not allowed to deliberate. Before deliberations begin the alternates are excused. I never like having to excuse the alternates because I know that they have worked just as hard as every other juror.

Civil juries have six people. However, as there are lesser due process concerns, alternates typically stay and deliberate until a verdict is reached. Additionally, if a civil jury deliberates for more than six hours, then five of the six jurors may agree on a verdict — it need not be  unanimous.

The most important thing about juries is this: Our founding fathers entrusted juries with such important and wide-ranging roles because of the fundamental trust they had in everyday citizens to do the right thing. This also demonstrates the lesser trust they placed in government – a distrust borne of experience at the hands of an overly powerful and unresponsive Crown.

While juries hold incredible power they only do so for a very short period of time. Accordingly, they are far less likely to abuse that power trying to advance political agendas or punishing their political rivals.

Our jury system remains to protect everyone’s life, liberty, and property against an over-zealous, ill-motivated or over-reaching government.

Judge Greg Galler is chambered in Washington County.