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County Watch by Jan Neish

Island Park News of Island Park, Idaho

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"Being on a jury is as important in America as voting," according to Judge Randy Smith of the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court immediately under the US Supreme Court. Really? How so? You might know that the jury system came from England; did you also know that it was firmly established in England by the Magna Carta in 1215? The original idea, though, came from ancient Greece where each jury ranged from 500-1500 citizens. The jury concept spread to Rome and then through the Holy Roman Empire to the Frankish courts in central Europe.

The Danes of Northern Europe took up the concept and spread it to their settlements in Scotland and northeast England where they would have twelve "law men" and form court committees. In 977 the English king Aetheired the Unready established the Wantage Code which included using twelve men to investigate crimes without bias. Meanwhile the Frankish Court, tired of the Viking invasions, gave up their northern coast to the exiled Norwegian Viking prince Rolv in exchange for a promise of peace. That land became known as Northmannia, the land of the Northmen, which later was shortened to Normandy.

However these Norman Vikings continued to raid other lands, including some parts of Italy and England. Besides raiding and hunting, they loved debating legal arguments and took naturally to the jury concept they encountered in their new home and travels. William the Conquerer helped establish this practice in England when he came in 1066.

By the 12th century Henry II used juries to resolve land disputes, but all other crimes were judged solely by the local sheriff or a traveling judge. The Magna Carta changed all that by requiring that all freemen be judged "by the lawful judgment of his peers". However, over the next 5 centuries this right was progressively nullified by the kings of England. The American Colonists who were fleeing such oppression made sure the right to a jury trial was included in the Mayflower Compact and later in the Constitution.

One last interesting historical point At the time of the American Revolution the English jury system included both criminal and civil cases and such was preserved in American law. England went on to later abolish jury trials for all but the more serious criminal cases.

Today in our federal and state court systems, juries don't go out and investigate the crime as they did in old England. In fact, they are banned from listening to or finding any facts other than what is presented to them in court. Their sole job is to determine the facts and decided if the defendant is guilty or not based on those facts. The judge then applies the law. In simplified form the division of duties in the court are: the lawyers present the facts, the jury uses the facts to decide the status of the accused and the judge decrees the sentence according to the laws. The exception to this is in a murder case where the jury must decide on a death penalty.

A fact less known is that once a jury decides their verdict, higher courts cannot overturn it unless the facts do not support that verdict. This protects the jury system from being nullified by an appeal to a different and supposed more favorable court. Most appeals are not based on the verdict, but on contested law procedures of the case — such as judge rulings about evidence, motions, or jury instructions.

In the federal system every 2 years a "master wheel" of 60,000 potential jurors is created from each of the three districts in Idaho: Pocatello, Boise, and Coeur d'Alene. These jurors' names come from voter registrations, driver's licenses, and state IDs. Every month 100 names are drawn from this master wheel and those jurors are called to serve for that month or until they actually serve on a jury. In Idaho that means you call in at specified times to learn if you need to come in. About 40 people are called for each case — they need 7 jurors for civil cases (6 to serve and 1 as alternate) and 14 jurors for criminal cases (12 to serve and 2 alternates). Through questions potential jurors are eliminated if they know the accused or as a preemptory right of the lawyers. Preemptory reasons can be anything that a lawyer doesn't like about the juror-except their race or gender. Each set of lawyers in a civil case can strike out 4 potential jurors, 6 in a criminal case and 10 in a life threatening, serious criminal case. Once a jury is picked it must hear the whole case, even if it extends beyond their month of duty. And, yes, during that time they cannot talk to anyone about the case, not even their fellow jurors. Only after all the facts are presented and the closing arguments are presented can the jurors discuss the case in their chambers. A hung jury is one that isn't unanimous after at least two tries for consensus.

During the trial jurors can take notes and might be able to ask questions, depending on the judge. The judge will not allow any questions that might prove the case unfairly. A question is submitted to the judge and he/she will consult with both sets of attorneys before it can be asked in court. If you are chosen for jury duty, bring your track shoes. Juries are ferried in and out of the court room as objections happen and motions about evidence are made. All this is to keep the facts as pure as possible and separate from law issues.

Contrary to TV dramas, juries are rarely sequestered though they can be moved. If the area of the crime is too prejudiced, a jury can be picked elsewhere and moved to the crime area for the trial.

In one sense, a jury verdict is another kind of vote and an important citizen duty to ensure the fair judgment of law. Yes, it can be inconvenient, but so is voting on a blustery November day. Both are vital opportunities and form an important part of our continued freedoms.



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Original Publication Date: November 5, 2015



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