What does a jury of your peers really mean?
In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, emotions have run high. But a disservice to our legal system occurs when long standing principles of constitutional and criminal law are either misunderstood, misrepresented or become the subject of heated emotional debate without the proper context and history. Case and point is the recent discussion surrounding the meaning of a “jury of one’s peers.”
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides criminal defendants with the right to a public and speedy trial by an impartial jury. Nowhere does the phrase a “jury of one’s peers” appear in the amendment. However, it is interpreted to mean that a criminal defendant is entitled to be judged by a group that reflects a cross section of the community in which the case is heard. Of course, this does not mean that a “white” defendant is entitled to a jury of only whites; or, that a female defendant is entitled to a jury comprising only of female jurors. Rather, the goal is to select a jury that represents a cross section of a particular community in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, etc…
The protection afforded by a jury of one’s peers extends to criminal defendants, not victims, witnesses or others involved in the criminal process. This ensures that the only person that is actually subject to the criminal prosecution (i.e. the defendant) is judged fairly by a group of his or her equals.
Much of the recent commentary and analysis has misinterpreted the above rule in the aftermath of a very difficult and emotional high profile case. But it is important to note that this tenant has a long history and has served our justice system well. Whatever ones belief about the Zimmerman verdict, we only compound the pain and confusion of our system by not properly understanding the basis on which these principles rest. In the end, such confusion will hamper our collective ability to properly understand not only the case at hand, but unfortunately, the inevitable others that will surely follow.