Outline of a jury trial
The basic steps in a jury trial are as follows:
Note: Linked terms are defined in the glossary
Not every case is decided by a jury trial. But when the litigants want a jury to decide their case, people are called from the community to serve as jurors. Jurors are chosen at random by the Clerk of Circuit Courts from source lists authorized by statute. The clerk sends prospective jurors a qualification questionnaire and jury summons. To be qualified means that a juror meets the legal eligibility requirements and can serve as a juror on any case in the circuit court of that county. The summons gives instructions of when and where to report and provides other useful information.
After jurors report to the courthouse, court staff will explain local procedures and describe what jurors can expect. This is called the orientation. In some courthouses jurors wait in a separate room called the jury assembly room before being assigned to a trial. In other courthouses jurors report directly to a courtroom.
Once in a courtroom the judge will instruct jurors on the selection process. During selection the judge and attorneys offer information about the case and also ask a series of questions to determine each juror's ability to serve on the specific case before the court. The questioning is called voir dire and means literally "to speak the truth," so potential jurors are sworn to answer all questions honestly.
The judge will outline the circumstances of the case, identify the attorneys and parties, and possibly some of the witnesses. The judge will ask the jurors questions to learn if there are legal reasons to excuse a particular person from service as a juror for the specific trial. Some questions might be:
- Do you know any of the people involved in the case?
- Do you know anything about this case from personal observation or by reading about the case in the newspaper or by hearing about it on television or radio?
- Do you know of any reasons why you would not be a fair and impartial juror?
The judge will decide if it is necessary to excuse a juror who is not or who appears not to be impartial. This is called a challenge for cause.
Next the parties, usually through their attorney, have the opportunity to question individual jurors. These questions may inquire into a juror's background, experiences,and beliefs. Sometimes these questions can be very personal. No juror should be embarrassed or offended. An attorney has a duty to ask questions to learn which jurors will provide his or her client with the fairest decision. Jurors must answer all questions honestly. The judge will see to it that the parties ask only questions that are appropriate and necessary. Many courts also use a written questionnaire to help in the selection process.
A party may ask that a juror be excused for cause, and the judge will then decide if the reason is sufficient. There is no limit on the number challenges for cause. A party may also ask the court to excuse a juror without giving any reason. This is called a peremptory challenge. By law the number of these challenges is limited. Once all these challenges are exhausted and there is a sufficient number of jurors to form a jury, any extra jurors will be excused. Juries usually consist of 6 or 12 jurors (depending on the case type), often with one or two alternate jurors.
Jurors who are excused should not be offended. Being excused is not a reflection on a person's integrity or ability. The right to challenge potential jurors is rooted in law and tradition. It is the method used to determine which jurors will decide each case.
When the required number of jurors has been chosen, the jury panel is sworn to fairly and impartially decide the case at issue. When jurors take this oath, they become the judges of all questions of fact. During the trial, jurors are seated in the jury box.
After the jury has been selected and sworn, the judge will provide more detailed information about the case, the trial schedule and court procedures. Questions about taking notes, asking questions and other juror practices will be answered at this time. Jurors permitted to take notes should not allow that to interfere with concentration or observation of court proceedings. Juror notes are not evidence and should be used only to help remember personal recollection and interpretation of facts presented during the trial. All notes will be collected and destroyed at the conclusion of the trial.
While each case is unique, all trials follow a general order of events, and the role of the jury is similar in all trials. First, the parties or their attorneys will describe in some detail the evidence they plan to offer. These descriptions are called opening statements. Usually the plaintiff goes first, and the defendant follows. These statements are not evidence, but explanations of what each side claims. The claims must be proved by evidence. The conflicting claims constitute the issues to be resolved.
The presentation of evidence is a technical process guided by court rule, statute and case law. Anything which tends to prove or disprove a claim about the facts is called relevant evidence. Evidence may be an exhibit (something in writing, or a photograph, or an object such as a weapon) or testimony (the verbal answers to questions or other sworn statements of witnesses).
The rules of evidence permit the jury to consider only information that is directly applicable to the issues in the case and only information that is presented to them in court. The jury will see and hear many things that are not evidence (opening statements and objections, for example). The judge will make sure that the jury knows what the evidence is in a particular case and will permit only proper questions, actions, and statements to be presented to the jury. Sometimes the judge may strike testimony, meaning it cannot be considered when the jury is making its decision.
After opening statements, the parties call witnesses and present their evidence. Usually the plaintiff, or prosecutor in a criminal case, begins. When the plaintiff or prosecutor has finished they rest their case and the defense begins its case. Witnesses are called to the stand and are asked questions to prove the facts in support of each point of view. Questions asked by the party calling the witness is called direct examination. The process of questioning by the opposing party is called cross-examination. The judge may permit the plaintiff, or prosecution, to present additional evidence after the defense presents its case, in rebuttal, which is an attempt to disprove information presented by the defendant.
In place of a witness appearing in person, a witness may be questioned some time before the trial and the answers written down. This written testimony, called a deposition, is taken under oath and after both sides have been given a chance to be present. Depositions also may be videotaped and shown to the jury, or a witness may appear by video conference or telephone conference.
A party has the right to object to an action or question by the opposing party or to a statement made by a witness if they believe it is not proper. The judge determines whether the objection has merit. If the judge agrees that the action, question, or statement is not proper, the objection is sustained; if the judge does not agree, then the objection is overruled. Objections by the parties or the ruling of the judge should not cause a juror to be swayed for or against either side.
It is common during a trial for the parties to present motions or hold conferences with the judge out of the hearing of the jury. These discussions are usually legal arguments which require resolution before being presented to the jury, if at all. By excusing the jury or by holding the conference at the bench or in chambers , the judge is making sure that only appropriate information is given to the jury.
After both sides have finished presenting their case each side will make a closing statement or closing argument in which they review and analyze the evidence and explain why they believe the facts support their viewpoint. Again, the closing statements are not evidence but are merely the opinions of the parties involved.
The judge will explain the rules of law that pertain to the case and list the decisions the jury must reach. These are called jury instructions. The task of the jury is to apply the abstract rules of law as given by the judge to the real-life situations of the case. Personal disagreement with the law may not be allowed to influence a juror's decision.
Jurors will be escorted from the courtroom to discuss the case in private. The jury will be given a copy of the jury instructions to take into the deliberation room to reference during discussions, along with a verdict form to complete. Any alternate jurors assigned to the trial are excused at this time.
The first task in deliberation is to select a foreperson, sometimes called the presiding juror, who acts as the moderator and discussion leader. As a member of the jury the foreperson has the same opportunity to express opinions as any other juror. But the foreperson's opinion should not be given any greater weight.
Jurors should express their opinions openly and honestly as well as listen carefully to the comments of fellow jurors. Their deliberations should consider all evidence received in court and the instructions given by the judge. Jurors may not rely upon any private sources of information. Jury deliberation is not the place for emotions, prejudice, or sympathy, but rather for the calm review of the facts and the applicable law. Jurors should consider the views of others and be willing to change their view when persuaded that is the correct course of action. No juror is required to vote against personal conscience. The jury should work together to reach a verdict.
If the jury has questions or needs clarification about the instructions, the foreperson may ask the judge in a written note to provide further assistance. The judge will review the question and reply. Occasionally, the jury will be brought back to the courtroom to receive an explanation or for a re-reading of testimony or instructions.
Each question on the verdict form must be answered separately and independently. The verdict is the final decision. When a verdict is reached the jury will return to the courtroom. The foreperson then will present the verdict to the court. The parties have the right to ask each juror to say if he or she agrees or disagrees with the verdict as reported to the court. If this happens it is called polling the jury.
In a criminal case the verdict must be unanimous. In a civil case five-sixths of the jury must agree.
If, after all possible deliberation, the jury cannot reach a verdict, it is called a hung jury. A mistrial occurs when a problem develops or a legal error is committed of such a serious nature that the judge determines the case cannot fairly proceed. After either a hung jury or a mistrial the court and parties will decide if another trial will take place with a different jury.
After the verdict is read in court, the judge will discharge the jury. Only after the judge has discharged the jury may the jurors discuss the case with others. Because attorneys have not been permitted to speak with jurors outside the presentation of the case, they may ask for comments about the conduct of the case in an earnest attempt to improve their skills. And in cases which have received extensive public attention jurors may be approached by members of the news media with questions about the case or jury deliberations. The general public, the attorneys and the parties may be interested in what evidence the jury considered significant. However, except in the case of polling of the jury, jurors have no obligation to reveal their vote or the justification for that decision. Unless there is a specific prohibition given by the judge, jurors may respond to these questions, but are under no obligation to do so. Jurors should be careful not to disclose the names or opinions of other jurors and respect other jurors' desire for privacy.
After jury duty is complete many judges meet with the jury to express the court's appreciation for their time and attention, and to answer questions jurors may have about the case. Some courts may distribute an exit questionnaire. This is an opportunity to express opinions about the jury experience and how the system may be improved. This input is invaluable to the Wisconsin Court System, and honest evaluations are appreciated.