You open a letter in your mailbox to find that its a letter summoning you to jury duty. You’ve heard that jury duty can be a major inconvenience, but are a little unsure about the process.
Will jury duty take you away from work, family, or school for a long time? Should you just ignore the letter? Can you?
In this article, we’ll provide a brief overview of the jury selection process so you can know what to expect if you’re summoned for jury duty. We’ll also go over how long each step in the process will take, as well as provide general tips to help you survive the process as a whole.
What is a Jury?
The U.S. constitution gives all citizens a list of basic rights, one of which is the right to a trial by their peers. This right allows individuals charged with a crime to choose between having either a judge or jury give the final decision in their case.
Where do the Jurors Come From?
The court chooses the pool of potential jurors randomly from a broad list of registered voters and/or licensed drivers in that county. Potential jurors must be at least 18 and eligible to vote.
Most people who receive a jury duty summons never actually have to serve on a jury. With the initial letter, the city or county often sends a questionnaire to each potential juror.
This questionnaire helps the court determine whether the juror will meet the qualifications to serve on that particular jury. Basically, this questionnaire weeds out any obviously unqualified jurors, such as individuals traveling in other countries or those over the age of 70.
By law, you must fill out the questionnaire – either by hand or online – within 5 days.
The Jury Pool
After the potential jurors have filled out the questionnaire, there is another random selection to choose the actual jury pool. Citizens placed into this pool must then appear in court for another in-person selection process.
After arriving in court on the appointed day, the judge and attorneys associated with the case will ask you a few questions. This process is called voir dire, which means “to speak the truth.”
For example, the judge might ask if you already know anything about the case. They might also question whether serving on the jury will cause you undue hardship, such as a if you can’t afford childcare or if you have a medical condition.
On the other hand, the attorneys overseeing the case might ask you if you have any political or social biases that might affect your decision. The attorneys will also generally ask if anyone in the jury pool knows the defendant or anyone personally involved in the case.
All of these questions center on figuring out whether or not a juror will judge the case impartially or not. Generally speaking, the judge and attorneys will try to avoid jurors with biases or pre-conceived ideas about the case. Even watching a news story on the case can affect this decision.
The judge will exclude many of the remaining potential jurors during this phase, especially if they are obviously biased in some way.
Attorneys can also ask the judge to dismiss a potential juror without giving a reason. This is called a peremptory challenge.
Each attorney can only make three preemptory challenges. The reason behind this is that the judge doesn’t want the attorneys to pick their perfect jury by excluding everyone else.
The Jury Box
After the voir dire process, the judge and attorneys will choose the specific jurors they want for the case. Generally, they will chose 12 jurors for a felony case and 7 jurors in a misdemeanor case.
They will also choose one or two alternate jurors in case one of their first selections doesn’t show. These alternate jurors will step in if one of the jurors has to drop out for a valid reason such as illness or an emergency.
What Happens in the Courtroom Stays in the Courtroom
In Virginia, jurors will also go through an orientation process before the trial begins. Generally, this process goes over the court’s expectations and rules for the case. For example, they’ll tell you not to discuss the case outside of the deliberation room or look up information online.
Remember, the court has trusted you with an important task – deciding on a person’s guilt or innocence. Because of this, you want to limit the information you receive about the case to only what you hear in court.
Further, you should never discuss the trial with other people. Also, try to avoid any news about the trail, such as from television, radio, the newspaper, or online.
Serving on a Jury
After the jury is selected, the trial will begin. The jury will hear the testimony and see the evidence presented by the attorneys. As a juror, you’re allowed to take notes and use them during each step of the deliberation process.
After each attorney has presented their side of the case, they will deliver closing arguments. This is the last time you will hear from the attorneys.
Before sending you off to discuss the trial, the judge will normally go over the basics of the law with you. Rest assured that the judge will make sure you have all the information you need to understand the case before letting you debate amongst yourselves.
The Jury’s Decision
After receiving all of the relevant information for the case, a sheriff or someone from the court will escort you to a small room where you and the other jurors can discuss the case. There is where the jury decides the final results of the trial. This discussion can last as little as a few minutes to as long as several days depending on the specifics of the case.
Whether or not the jury finds the defendant guilty, the decision must be unanimous. If even one juror disagrees, the judge will declare a mistrial and the entire jury selection process will begin again.
Taken together, the jury duty will last for around a week, but can be significantly shorter or longer depending on the case. If you receive a summons for jury duty, you should always respond as soon as possible. Even if serving on a jury will cause you undue hardship, simply ignoring the summons can result in fines and other problems.
In addition, jury duty is an important civil action, and one of the cornerstones of our judicial process. You’re helping make sure the defendant can exercise his constitutional right to a trial by jury.