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"Justice" was not always fair. Early attempts at justice were often cruel. As far back as 1000 BC, ancient societies, and later the church, conducted "trial by ordeal." Hot irons, boiling water and dunking the accused in cold water were used to determine guilt or innocence. Sometimes simply surviving the ordeal was considered "proof" that the accused was guilty.
The concept of trial by jury is almost as old as civilization itself. One source traces it to ancient Egypt, where, more than 4,000 years ago, workers in cemeteries were tried for minor offenses by juries of eight, four from each side of the Nile.
In Greece, around 400 BC, large juries of hundreds of volunteers would listen to evidence from both sides and reach a verdict. The Greeks believed jury trials were the best way to ensure that the community's sense of justice would prevail. The most famous jury trial in Ancient Athens was that of Socrates, who was tried for corrupting the youth and going against the gods. A jury of 501 men found him guilty by a majority of 60 and sentenced him to death. The size of Greek juries varied from 101 to 2,001, depending on the importance of the case.
In medieval England, the number of jurors varied from six to 66, although the number twelve appears again and again and has tended to be twelve for at least 800 years, since the time of England's Henry II. Unlike our present-day system, jurors in medieval England had to be familiar with the facts in a case. They were actually witnesses called together by the king's representatives to tell what they knew.
English barons recognized the importance of juries when, in 1215, they forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. This document included one of the first written expressions of the right to a trial by one's peers.
The jury system as we know it in the United States is also derived from the Magna Carta, which states, "No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned ... unless by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." When the colonists settled in the new world, they brought the tradition with them. It became associated with the rights of Englishmen and was mentioned in many important documents, including the Declaration of Independence.
In a democracy such as that of the United States, the jury system is considered to be a fundamental safeguard of constitutional rights. The right of trial by jury appears in both the Sixth and Seventh Amendments.
The Texas Declaration of Independence contained a grievance that stated:
It has failed and refused to secure, on a firm basis, the right of trial by jury, that palladium of civil liberty, and only safe guarantee for the life, liberty, and property of the citizen.
The Texas Constitution, in Section 15 of the Bill of Rights, guarantees to all persons the right of trial by jury:
The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate. The Legislature shall pass such laws as may be needed to regulate the same, and to maintain its purity and efficiency....
Unlike medieval jurors, effort is made to assure that people called to jury duty today are not likely to know one another or to have personal knowledge of the case they will hear. In Texas, the Secretary of State compiles a master list of potential jurors from voter registration and drivers' license lists. This list is sent to the counties at the end of each year. From there a computer makes the random selection and prepares a printed summons (an order to appear in court) to be mailed to the prospective juror.
Some counties require jurors to report every day for an entire week. In order to lessen the time away from day-to-day activities, however, some counties have begun using a system called "one day/one trial," which insures a juror of serving for the length of one trial or only one day if not placed on a jury during the first day. Another method used is "stand-by" jury duty. When a "stand-by" summons is received, the prospective juror is instructed to call the Central Jury Room between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. to see if he or she is needed. He or she may or may not even need to report.
When reporting for jury service, prospective jurors are asked to fill out and turn in juror information cards, which contain questions such as address, place of employment, marital status and religious preference. Attorneys for both sides use this information during jury selection. The information on these cards is kept in a confidential file.
To serve on a Texas jury, a person must meet the following qualifications:
Be a citizen of the state and county and a qualified voter in the county;
Be of sound mind and good moral character;
Be able to read and write;
Must not have served as a juror for six days during the preceding six months in district court or during the preceding three months in a county court;
Must not have been convicted of a felony or theft;
Must not be under indictment or other legal accusations of theft or any felony.
The following persons may claim an exemption from Texas jury service if they so desire:
Persons over age seventy;
Persons who have legal custody of a child or children under the age of ten if jury service would necessitate leaving the child without adequate supervision;
Officer or employee of the Texas Legislature;
Primary caregiver of an invalid unable to take care of himself/herself.
Although some states use six, eight or ten jurors, Texas law require that district courts use twelve person juries and county and lower courts use six person juries. District courts usually call a jury panel of between 26 and 60 people to select the eventual twelve jurors needed. County and justice of the peace courts typically request a panel of twelve to fifteen persons to select six jurors. These jury panels are also selected completely at random.
The completely random nature of jury selection ends once the jury panel enters the trial courtroom. That is when the process called voir dire begins. Voir Dire is French and means "to speak the truth," or "to look and to say." After a short statement explaining what the case is about and the people who are involved, attorneys for both sides (and sometimes the judge), ask questions to determine who will serve on the jury. Attorneys want a jury that would be most likely to decide in their favor, so they try to identify those panelists who might help the other party and then try to remove as many of them as possible.
Anyone who is related to any of the parties, has unfinished business with one of the lawyers, or knows so much about the case that he or she already has formed an opinion, will be "challenged for cause." The judge in the case will determine whether this juror is excused or not. Each side may excuse as many prospective jurors for cause as the judge approves. Prospective jurors are sometimes asked to complete surveys to be used during voir dire .
In addition to challenges for cause, each side has a right to excuse a certain number of jurors without giving any reason. These exemptions are called "peremptory challenges," and the numbers are determined by statute. In Texas capital felony cases, each side gets fifteen peremptory challenges; in non-capital felony cases, each side gets ten; in misdemeanor cases, each side gets three; in civil cases, each side gets six; and in federal cases, each side gets three peremptory challenges.
In the past, prospective jurors could be excused for racial reasons, but the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1986 in Batson v. Kentucky that prosecutors could not exclude potential jurors simply because they are the same race as the defendant in criminal cases. In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled that the same thing applies in civil cases for both sides. The next year, 1992, the defense was added, and now all peremptory challenges must be race neutral.
Women were disqualified by Texas law from serving on juries until 1898, and it was 1954 before the first woman served on a jury in Texas. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that people could not be excluded from serving on juries because of gender.
A statute passed by the Texas Legislature in 1987 prohibits discrimination against the deaf in jury selection, and in December 1988, the first deaf person served.