Guilty or Innocent: The Importance of Jury Duty
Trial by jury is a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Unlike a bench trial, in which a judge or judges render a decision, a jury trial is a legal proceeding that depends on a panel of citizens like you, who determine the outcome of the case. Per the National Judicial College: “Jury trials offer the voice of the people to the civil and criminal justice systems”. Not only is jury duty a requirement for most U.S. citizens, but it is also a vital component of ensuring that individuals are heard fairly and justly in court.
Although some people regard reporting for jury duty to be an inconvenience, it is one of the most important responsibilities of citizenship. A trial by jury consists of 6-12 people selected before any evidence is presented. Though these trials are usually public, jurors deliberate privately. Serving on a jury is no small feat; jurors determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant or defendants in criminal and civil matters.
Juries are also important because they are made up of our peers. A panel of jurors should reflect an impartial cross-section of their community. To ensure that everyone has equal access to justice, it is essential for a jury to be diverse and unbiased. For example, imagine if you were injured due to someone’s negligence but when you went to court to have your case heard, there was no one on the jury that looked like you or understood your culture. For this very reason, juries should be made up of people of different races, ethnicities, ages, genders, and religions. Juries should reflect the community.
Jurors must meet a few requirements to serve. Per Pennsylvania law, a juror must be:
- A citizen of the United States
- At least 18 years old
- Proficient in English
- Reside in the judicial district where the case is held
- Physically and mentally capable
- Never convicted of a crime that is punishable by 1+ year(s) in prison
When you serve on a jury, you make a significant difference in someone’s life. You present your own unique experiences, perspectives, and views as you represent your community by bringing justice and fairness to the legal system. You can determine the innocence or guilt of an individual in a criminal case. In a civil case, you can decide if someone was negligent, for example, and you can decide the victim deserves financial compensation.
As John Adams wrote nearly 250 years ago, though it still rings just as true today: “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”
The next time you get summoned for jury duty, serve proudly knowing that you may determine the fate, guilt, or innocence of a member of your community.
By: Gabriela Raful, Esq.
President, Berks County Bar Association
Senior Partner, Galfand Berger, LLP