Sumvertice Substance: The Right to a Jury Trial

Powerful Essays
Topics: Jury, Criminal law
I. Introduction

The role the jury trial plays in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice.1 The right to a jury trial is rooted in our legal tradition2 and is articulated in the U.S. Constitution.3 This protection extends back to British common law, and serves as a check against government oppression by ensuring that a defendant’s fate lies in the hands of a jury of ordinary citizens rather than the government’s prosecutor or judge.4 Coupled with the presumption of innocence, the right to a jury trial serves as a “cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon justice”5 that limits potential government tyranny. At the heart of jury trial protections and the presumption of innocence lies the concern that it is better to let a guilty man go free than to convict an innocent man.6
Justice Brennan’s opinion in, In re Winship, explicitly recognized the reasonable doubt standard for criminal defendants. 7 That opinion elevated the protection associated with the longstanding application of the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard in criminal prosecutions to constitutional status.8 After Winship, as a general rule, under the due process clauses of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the prosecution must prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, every fact necessary to constitute the crime, the state has charged the defendant.9 The Supreme Court has struggled, however, over the past three decades to find the precise contours of this constitutional protection. Despite repeated attempts, the Supreme Court continues to struggle to find the appropriate balance between protecting defendant rights10 and ensuring legislative autonomy in the drafting of criminal statutes.11 The long line of Sixth Amendment cases considering which factual questions must be resolved by juries beyond a reasonable doubt and which questions may be resolved by judges by a preponderance of evidence “has produced a bewildering series of distinctions.”12 In Mullaney v.

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