The jury system in the United States has been subject to a lot of controversy. Most Americans still support the basic concept of the jury trial, especially in criminal cases, where the juries are composed of average citizens as an important bulwark against the potential tyranny of the government. At the same time, widely publicized cases like the Menendez case, the two Rodney King trials and the O.J. Simpson case have led many Americans to question whether juries can be trusted to make wise decisions. Emotional arguments by lawyers, pressures from the mass media and personal disagreements within the jury room often seem to distort jury decision making.
[...] Some states such as North Carolina and Louisiana, attacked the problem by abolishing jury discretion and mandating the death penalty for specified categories of crimes. Other states, led by Georgia, Florida and Texas preserved the judge's or jury's discretion to make the final decision but attempted to narrow and channel the exercise of discretion by legislating standards for the death sentence to apply. The Supreme Court proved hostile to the idea of “mandatory death sentences” but receptive to the idea of “guided discretion” death penalty laws. In 1976, the Supreme Court constructed a two-pronged process for death”. [...]
[...] This is a power to interpret the law, a power usually embodied by judges. In fact, this power of nullification predates the American Constitution. As illustrated by the Zenger trial in 1734, juror in criminal cases do not always follow the instructions given to the jury by the judge. Nullification is the power of the jury at work, the power to decide the issues of law the defendant is charged with, as well as the fact. Thus, the jury embodies the final check of the check and balance system and symbolises protection from unjust laws. [...]
[...] One of the most common reaction is for jurors to look at for guidance in making the sentencing decision. Even though the law does not actually purport to tell the jury which sentence to choose, many misinterpret the judge's legal instructions and manage to convince themselves that the law dictates a sentencing result. The avoidance of personal responsibility is even greater in those states where the trial judge has the legal authority to override the jury's sentencing verdict. However, the avoidance of personal responsibility might have the effect of making jurors more likely to choose a death sentence. [...]
[...] Studies show that 32% of the jurors said that, based on their understanding of the judge's instructions, the law required a death sentences if the defendant would be dangerous in the future whereas a death sentences is always a matter of jury discretion. Most jurors tends to underestimate the time the defendant will serve in prison if not given a death sentence. Jurors who underestimate the severity of alternative sentences and worry about the defendant's future dangerousness tend to vote for death. [...]
[...] As juries become both less common and more expensive, some have questioned the wisdom of preserving the criminal jury in its present form. It seems rather hard to determine how far the jury is really autonomous and objective when deciding. The lack of legal knowledge from the jurors leads judges to gain more power than the law entitles them to have. The benefits of the jury are difficult to quantify, but jury verdicts continue to earn widespread acceptance by the public and trial by jury remains a cherished right of most Americans. [...]
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