So you've received a jury summons in the mail. GREAT! This is your chance to serve conscientiously as a fully informed juror. Here's a brief rundown of what you need to know to do your best as a trial or grand juror.
1. Be Fully Informed
As a juror, you have the right to vote your conscience, even if it means setting aside the law to conscientiously acquit someone who has technically broken the law.
You cannot legally be punished for or required to change your verdict. In fact, there is no requirement for jurors to deliver a verdict. If jurors cannot agree on a verdict, judges may issue additional instructions known as "Allen" or "dynamite" charges. These additional instructions may strongly imply to jurors that they are somehow remiss in their duty if they do not reach a verdict. This is simply not true.
Jurors should not give up their conscientiously held beliefs under such pressure just for the sake of consensus. If they cannot reach a verdict, the judge will at some point declare a mistrial.
Judges and prosecutors may try to conceal this right from you. They may even openly deny that jurors have the ability to do this or falsely suggest that they may be punished for conscientiously acquitting a defendant who has technically broken a law. Appeals courts have ruled that although such instructions are false, they constitute a type of error for which the higher court provides no relief to the defendant. This means that there is no penalty for the government when it falsely instructs jurors on the subject, so it is something we expect to continue for the foreseeable future.
(These files are printable masters. As a result, some pages may not appear in order on the digital files, but they do appear correctly when printed and folded.)
2. Get on the Jury
Answer Your Summons
You cannot save someone's life through jury nullification unless you get on a jury. The first step in getting on a jury is to answer your summons.
You may be asked to fill out and return paperwork, call a number, or simply report to a courthouse on a certain date. Follow the instructions on your jury summons to the best of your ability. Appear when and where you are scheduled to do so.
Especially in high profile cases, you may be asked to fill out a prospective juror questionnaire and return it before you are scheduled to report for jury duty. You may find the information you are asked to provide to be surprisingly or objectionably intrusive. This in-depth pre-screening was not part of the originally intended jury selection process, but the system has evolved over the years far from its origins.
If you object to providing the information requested, you may contact your own attorney or the court for information on whether or not you are legally required to answer. However, keep in mind that if you stand out in any way during jury selection, such as by objecting to the questionnaire, you will most likely be removing yourself from the possibility of serving on that jury. This may leave the defendant with no fully informed jurors.
Consider how you can answer the questions without unnecessarily providing too much detail. You may find the two resources listed below helpful to review before you start the questionnaire. FIJA has developed these through extensive research of actual cases so we can provide you with current examples of what is going on in the courts today and how you can respond truthfully but neutrally so that you are less likely to be deselected from a jury. The first has examples from actual prospective juror questionnaires. Though the second was developed from watching the actual jury selection phase of trials, some of the questions might also appear on a questionnaire, so you may want to browse it as well.
Appearing for Jury Duty
Once you check in for jury duty, you are part of the pool of jurors who may be called to hear a trial. You may be called at some point as a prospective juror in a particular case, or you may be released without ever being considered for a jury when enough jurors have been selected for the trials taking place that day.
While you are waiting, you should do your best to appear as a normal, law-abiding citizen. Now is not the time to strike up conversations on political topics or try to educate people about jury nullification. The best policy is to appear normal and keep quiet about your beliefs.
To blend into the jury pool:
- Wear an outfit that is clean and neat, but not overly formal. Aim for a business casual look. Avoid camo, message t-shirts, revealing clothes, etc. Be sure your attire conforms to the court's dress code as well. Many courts do not allow t-shirts, sleeveless shirts, torn clothing, etc., so check your summons for details.
- Body art or unusual jewelry should be concealed or removed if possible. Other accessories should be also neutral and non-offensive.
- Hair (including facial hair) should be neatly groomed and look typical for the community. Avoid flamboyant colors and styles if you can.
- Reading material and other things you bring to stay occupied while you wait to be called should be non-political, not overly intellectual, and neutral. No High Times, Guns & Ammo, The Economist, Utne Reader, etc. Try the local daily paper, a novel, your electronic reader, or People magazine instead.
- Do not appear happy, eager, or excited to serve. Go for an attitude of boredom.
- If you decide to chat, stick to neutral topics. Sports, television, children and grandchildren, pets, etc. are good choices. Avoid chatting about hobbies that are politically charged.
If you are called to a courtroom as a potential juror in a case, your odds of being selected as a juror have improved substantially. Here is where the verbal process of voir dire begins. In voir dire, prospective jurors are questioned either by the judge or by the attorneys in order to determine who will be selected as jurors and alternate jurors. At this stage, your best bet is to blend in with the crowd and disclose as little information as possible.
You cannot legally lie when answering questions. With a little advance preparation, though, you can craft some ways to truthfully answer questions you may be asked without unnecessarily disclosing information that will result in you being eliminated from the jury. Questions you may be asked during jury selection and how to answer them truthfully but neutrally are covered in more detail in the resources linked below.
Attorneys are usually permitted to view public information about you on the web, but typically they are NOT allowed to friend or otherwise surreptitiously connect with you in order to access your private postings. Consider selectively deleting social media posts or making your accounts private before you show up for jury duty.
One juror expert has described the process of jury selection as each side weeding out those they don't want and then the jury is composed mainly of those they know the least about. Attorneys are trained in techniques designed to get prospective jurors to reveal more information required to answer their question. For example, they may nod or leave an uncomfortably long pause after a prospective juror's answer to encourage them to continue talking even though the question has been answered. Do not fall for these tactics.
If you refuse to answer questions or try to argue with attorneys, this will indicate to them that you are an independent thinker who will not be easily led to their side. You will very likely be eliminated from the jury if this happens.
At some point, you may realize one of the attorneys or the judge is going to remove you. (Don't decide this too early based on your assumptions, but you may observe behavior that makes it clear.)
If you are confident you're not going to make it on the jury, you may think it is a good idea to make a long speech to your fellow prospective jurors to educate them about conscientious acquittal. Odds of success with this strategy are low. The judge will not allow you to speak uninterrupted when they see what you are doing. At best, you may get a few seconds before you are interrupted and dismissed from the courtroom.
If this is something you are considering, be prepared in advance and have your short soundbite rehearsed and ready to deliver smoothly and quickly before you can be stopped. See the Surviving Voir Dire brochure below under Resources for what to say and other tips on succeeding in this scenario.
- Called for Jury Duty?
- Surviving Voir Dire (.pdf)
- Questions to Consider before Jury Selection
- Filling Out a Prospective Juror Questionnaire
3. Serve Conscientiously
Vote your conscience until a verdict is delivered or a mistrial is declared due to a hung jury.
Many people are mistakenly under the impression that juries must come to a verdict of Guilty or Not Guilty on every charge. We have heard from many who served as jurors that forceful and intimidating instructions from judges when their jury could not agree misled them into thinking they were required to deliver verdicts.
Jurors are NEVER required to deliver a verdict on any of the charges they consider.
If you conscientiously disagree with other jurors as to how one or more charges should be decided, continue to respectfully engage in deliberations with your fellow jurors, but do not bargain or give away your vote!
It is best not to openly discuss your intent not to enforce a law that you may disagree with. If one of your fellow jurors reports you to the judge, the judge can remove you from the jury for doing so, even as late as deliberations. You can also be removed for refusing to deliberate, so don't just refuse to interact with your fellow jurors.
You cannot legally be removed for expressing doubt about a defendant being guilty, so express your doubts whenever you can. You can also ask thoughtful questions, actively listen, and otherwise participate in deliberations.
The courtroom is not meant to be a level playing field in which each side has equal duties and equal opportunity to prevail. Rather it was purposely tilted to err on the side of liberty and give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant. It is the prosecutor's job to prove each charge to each juror beyond a reasonable doubt—there is no partial credit for simply showing up or even for making an effort.
Remember that you may be the ONLY person standing between the defendant and a life-destroying conviction. Like a stone tossed into still water, the effects of a conviction ripple out into the community. Not only can the defendant's life be destroyed, but it will be felt by family, friends, co-workers, rippling out into the community.
As a juror, you can prevent a peaceful person from losing their property and savings, their family, their friends, their safety, their freedom, and even their very life.
Jury duty is for heroes, and you can be the next one!