In most English-speaking countries, a person who is accused of a crime has the right to
a “trial by jury.” In a trial by jury, the guilt or innocence of the accused person is decided
by a group of 12 people, called jurors, who must listen to the evidence about the case.
The idea of trial by jury is over 800 years old, but there was a time when criminal cases
were decided in other ways. Today, many of these methods seem ridiculous and cruel.
Many accused people were forced to undergo a trial by ordeal. There were several
different kinds of this trial. For example, in the ordeal by fire, an accused man was forced
to carry a red-hot piece of iron in his hand. People believed that if the man were innocent
then the gods would protect him, and his hand would not be burned or blistered by the
Another form of the trial by ordeal was the ordeal by combat. If one person accused
another of a crime, they would be forced to fight each other with some weapon. People
believed that the gods would help the man who was right and allow him to win the fight.
Yet another kind of ordeal was the ordeal by water. If a woman was accused of a crime,
such as witchcraft, she might be thrown into a river with rocks attached to her. People
believed that the gods would help an innocent woman and allow her to float on the water.
Gradually, people realized that the trial by ordeal was a completely worthless way to
judge a person’s innocence or guilt. They wanted a less barbaric way to decide criminal
cases. During the twelfth century, a new method was introduced by one of the kings of
England, Henry the Second. Henry said that criminal cases should be decided by the
opinions of twelve honest men who knew about the crime, the victim, and the accused
person. This was the beginning of trial by jury in English-speaking countries, and the
method soon became very popular. People trusted this new method much more than
they trusted the old methods.
Later, the system of trial by jury changed somewhat. Instead of having a jury of twelve
men and women who knew about the crime, juries were chosen so that the twelve people
did not know anything about the crime. This change ensures that the jurors do not have
any bias or prejudice about the case. When jurors do not know any of the people
involved in the case, their decisions are more likely to be fair and accurate.
Today, citizens in many countries are called occasionally for jury duty. This can be
inconvenient for people who are busy with their work and family life. However, many men
and women are willing to serve on juries because of a feeling of responsibility to society.
The use of juries in criminal cases helps to ensure that justice is done.