A Nice Dilemma: Considering the ramifications of a trial by jury in criminal cases

The following assignment will consider some ramifications of trials by jury for criminal defendants in a few different ways. Firstly, it will delineate the objective of a jury in an adversary system and evaluate the efficacy therein. Secondly, it will present abstractions that speak to the disservices so often ubiquitous in trial juries. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it will weigh the nuance of certain trials against the capabilities of the average civilian to consider those cases with appropriate reverence.

Our Constitutionalized Adversary System by Monroe H. Freedman concludes,

“. . . there is good reason to believe that the adversary system is superior in determining truth when facts are in dispute between contesting parties.Even if it were not the best method for determining the truth, however, the adversary system is an expression of some of our most precious rights. In a negative sense, it serves as a limitation on bureaucratic control. In a positive sense, it serves as a safeguard of personal autonomy and respect for each person's particular circumstances. The adversary system thereby gives both form and substance to the humanitarian ideal of the dignity of the individual”.

In the journals and articles offered throughout Intro to Law & Legal Studies, there seems to be a consensus, at least among scholars, that while the adversary system in our country is far from infallible, it represents an integral facet of our liberal democracy. The American jury trial is a unique constitutional right that plays a vital role in our system of checks and balances. It ostensibly offers an objective and corroborated means of conflict resolution, and bolsters the political goods and participatory entitlements afforded to every citizen. Yet, the aim of a trail by jury is not symbolic alone.

Jurors, especially those selected to evaluate the most intricate or offensive criminal cases, are conscripted into an intimidating situation in which they, laypeople by definition, must administer unbiased law and order beyond a reasonable doubt.

They are suddenly endowed with an unprecedented responsibility to themselves, each other, the defendant, plaintiff, and entire citizenry. A responsibly, it appears, for which they are not often well equipped. A history of innumerably unsound verdicts at the hands of capital jurors speaks to the gravity of this responsibility and its associated consequences.

Christopher E. Smith speaks to the severity of this consequence in the introduction to his journal, Imagery, Politics, and Jury Reform,

“The legal proceedings generated by Rodney King’s beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers reminded politicians, commentators, and the American public about the power and importance of the American jury. In 1992, rioting triggered by the Simi Valley, California jury’s acquittal of King’s assailants left dozens of people dead and sections of Los Angeles in smoldering ruins.”

While juries are more restricted in the personal biases prosecutors or judges are often inclined to act upon, substantive injustices in consequence of the incapabilities of specific jurors or collective juries are becoming more prevalent. Juries can be quick to find guilt. Customarily, and unsurprisingly, this antagonism takes root in racism, religious bigotry, and queer/gender politics.

In Qualitatively Estimating the Incidence of Wrongful Conviction, criminal justice professor Marvin Zalman estimates that up to 10,000 people may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each year in the United States.

As of November 8, 2019, The Death Penalty Information Center listed a recorded 167 exonerations of inmates sentenced to death since 1973. Jurors are only human, wont to err just the same as anyone. It is in this truth we see reflected indeterminate grave mistakes.

We may concede, then, that the concept of a trial by jury is sound in its intent, however its results may waver in practice. Although, to the point of accuracy in representation, an argument could be made from a statistical vantage.

It stands to reason that smaller sample sizes get decreasingly representative of the entire population in question. With representation playing such an important role in the politics of the selection of juries, and the outcomes of the momentous decisions they make, one could argue that twelve people would hardly approximate the legal understanding and ethical convictions of the entire citizenry.

The adult population in the United States is estimated to be 209,128,094. In order to endeavor toward a truly coherent and characteristic verdict, a jury would need to consist of 16,588 people in order to achieve representation with a 99% confidence level and a 1% margin of error.

Perhaps an extraneous figure to consider, if not inciting of other hypothetical shortcomings of our adversary system as our nation elevates and expands in myriad ways.

Although mainly in reference to juries that hear civil cases, researchers Valerie P. Hans and Neil Vidmar in their article, The Verdict on Juries, find that juries, overall, “seem to constitute part of a move away from a totalitarian regime to one of greater democracy” and that, “the international interest and emergence of jury systems suggest that there are some enduring benefits to the direct involvement of citizens as legal decision makers.” They conclude that, “after evaluating all of the evidence, our verdict is strongly in favor or the American jury”.

After evaluating all of the evidence, and in the apparent absence of any feasible proposals for jury reform, it is the conclusion of this assignment that while the faults of a system that thrusts an unparalleled obligation upon laypeople are grievously evident, the importance to a liberal democracy this system represents may outweigh its lethal failings for the nonce.

Freedman, Monroe H. “Our Constitutionalized Adversary System.” Chapman University Digital Commons, 1998,

Hans, Valerie P, and Neil Vidmar. “The Verdict on Juries .” Judicature, vol. 91, no. 5, 2008.

“Innocence Database.” Death Penalty Information Center, 2019,

“Overview of the United States.” The Demographic Statistical Atlas of the United States - Statistical Atlas, 2020,

Smith, Christopher E. “Imagery, Politics, and Jury Reform.” University of Akron, 1994,

Zalman, Marvin. “Qualitatively Estimating the Incidence of Wrongful Convictions.” SSRN, 9 Feb. 2017,