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This Page Last Updated October 25, 2011

History of the Jury

By the time the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted and ratified, the institution of trial by jury was almost universally revered.

"Those who emigrated to this country from England brought with them this great privilege 'as their birthright and inheritance, as a part of that admirable common law which had fenced around and interposed barriers on every side against the approaches of arbitrary power.' "
Its history has been traced back to Magna Carta. The jury began in the form of a grand or presentment jury with the role of inquest and was started by Frankish conquerors to discover the King's rights. Henry II regularized this type of proceeding to establish royal control over the machinery of justice, first in civil trials and then in criminal trials. Trial by petit jury was not employed until the reign of Henry III, in which the jury was first essentially a body of witnesses, called for their knowledge of the case. Not until the reign of Henry VI did the jury become the trier of evidence. It was during the Seventeenth Century that the jury emerged as a safeguard for the criminally accused.

Thus, in the Eighteenth Century, Blackstone could commemorate the institution as part of a "strong and two-fold barrier . . . between the liberties of the people and the prerogative of the crown" because "the truth of every accusation . . . . [must] be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbors indifferently chosen and superior to all suspicion." The right to a jury trial was guaranteed in the constitutions of the original 13 States, and in the body of the Constitution and in the Sixth Amendment. The constitution of every State entering the Union thereafter protected the right to jury trial in criminal cases.