We have created this mock trial website to help illustrate in a fun interactive manner how the U.S. legal system works and the important role played by the people who serve on juries. Our legal system cannot work if citizens don't participate. If you do not support the legal system by participating in it, then everyone suffers the consequences of a system in which only a few people determine what is right and wrong. Jury service is a crucial part of our system of justice. Americans expect our courts to decide fairly and are justly upset, when this does not happen, but try to imagine a world where judgements are rendered without citizen input and you expect the decision to be unfair.
At Anderson Kill & Olick, we believe that all of us, need to contribute to our country by performing our civic obligations. One of our very important civic obligations is to participate as jurors in the legal system when called upon to serve. In providing this mock trial outline, we hope in some small measure to help educate students about our system of justice and the importance of jury service.
The American Legal System
As former colonists of Great Britain, the Founding Fathers of the United States adopted much of the legal system of Great Britain. We have a "common law," or law made by courts rather than a monarch or other central governmental authority like a legislature. The jury, a panel of ordinary citizens chosen to decide a case, is an integral part of our common-law system.
Use of juries to decide cases is a distinguishing feature of the American legal system. Few other countries in the world use juries as we do in the United States. Over the centuries, many people have believed that juries in most cases reach a fairer and more just result than would be obtained using a judge alone, as many countries do. Because a jury decides cases after "deliberations," or discussions, among a group of people, the jury's decision is likely to have the input from many different people from different backgrounds, who must as a group decide what is right.
Juries are used in both civil cases, which decide disputes among private citizens, and criminal cases, which decide cases brought by the government alleging that individuals have committed crimes. Juries are selected from the U.S. citizens and summoned (required by court order to appear for jury selection). "Panels," or consisting of set numbers, of jurors are called for each case requiring a jury.
The judge assigned to the case oversees the selection of jurors
to serve as the jury for that case. In some states, prospective jurors
are questioned by the judge; in others, they are questioned by the lawyers
representing the parties under rules dictated by state law.
The Parties to a Civil Trial:
Plaintiff. The plaintiff is the person who begins the suit. In the complaint, the plaintiff states, or alleges, that he or she was injured by the conduct of another. The plaintiff usually is represented by a lawyer.
Defendant. The defendant is the individual sued by the plaintiff. The defendant usually is also represented by a lawyer. The defendant disputes the statements, or allegations, in the plaintiff's complaint or may admit the allegations, but argue that he or she has a valid defense to the claims such as self defense.
The Judge. The judge decides which disputed facts (evidence), may be presented to the jury. The judge also tells the jury in "jury instructions" what the applicable law is. The judge decides the issues of law (see the glossary) in the case.
The Jury. The jury is a group of ordinary citizens selected to decide the case. A jury usually is made up of a group of six or twelve individuals, depending on state law. In most states, a jury must reach a unanimous verdict. That is, all members of the jury must agree with the decision. Some states allow for less than a unanimous verdict in some civil cases. If less than the required number of jurors agree, then the jury is a "hung jury." That means that the jury was unable to reach a decision. In that case, the case can be tried again.
Witnesses. Witnesses must have specific knowledge of what happened. Witnesses are generally not allowed to present hearsay testimony (such as gossip). Expert witnesses may not know the specific facts in the case but may use their specialized knowledge to help the jury understand complex evidence, such as the degree of intoxication that results from drinking certain amounts of liquor.
The Bailiff. The bailiff is a court officer charged with keeping order in the court and helping the jury. A bailiff also may oversee custody of prisoners while in court during criminal cases.
Additional terms are defined in the glossary
and you can find out more information about the U.S. judicial system on the
Links | Glossary | Awards & Comments | Estate of Peder Jensen | Carla Christine Jensen's Information for her Attorney | The White Star Line | Second Officer Lightoller's Memo to the White Star's Lawyer | Mauritz Hakan Bjornstrom-Steffansson's Letter to White Star Line Counsel | Plaintiff's Exhibit I | Teacher's Guide to Jensen v. White Star Lines | The Judicial Process in the US
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