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What is a Criminal Jury?

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  • Written By: Lori Smith
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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Serving on a criminal jury is an important civic responsibility, and vital in any democratic society's justice system. While there are different jury types, this one usually carries the responsibility of deciding whether or not a defendant is guilty of a crime. Jury members are committed to the verdict they collectively make. If it finds a defendant guilty, the judge imposes a sentence, or punishment, that often includes time in prison.

A scale can be a representation of and symbol for legal justice. In civil trials, the scale only needs to tip slightly one way or the other for a jury to deliver a verdict in favor of that side. In a criminal trial, however, this scale needs to tip completely toward guilty in order for the jury to deliver such a verdict. This is also sometimes called guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

A defendant accused of a crime begins a trial with the presumption of innocence. It is the prosecution attorney's responsibility to prove otherwise, with concrete evidence. He or she may present various types of facts and data to substantiate his or her case to the criminal jury. Testimony of witnesses, photographs, digital media, physical evidence, or other types of proof may be presented in an effort to persuade members. A prosecution lawyer must provide enough evidence to meet the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt.

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The defense attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. To this end, he or she often attempts to undermine the credibility of evidence or testimony, to create the reasonable doubt needed for a not-guilty verdict. The defense also has the chance to present witnesses on his or her client’s behalf.

In the U.S., it is a defendant’s constitutional right to choose not to testify during his criminal trial. The jury is usually instructed not to take his lack of testimony as a sign of guilt. The defense lawyer typically advises the client whether or not to take the stand, based on what is in the defendant's best interest.

Once all the witness testimony and evidence is presented, the criminal jury — which can include up to 15 members — are escorted into a private room where members receive instruction on deliberation. This is the first time they will be allowed to discuss the case. Together, they weigh all of the evidence and make conclusions based on the facts of the case. Unlike civil trials, the criminal jury is usually required to unanimously decide on a verdict. If they are not able to agree, it could result in a hung jury.

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