The media has been closely following the criminal trial of George Zimmerman, the racially charged trial in which Zimmerman is accused of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin. Just this week, a jury of six was chosen.
For most people, when we think of juries, we think of them as being comprised of twelve people. Indeed, for over 600 years, juries in the English and American legal systems have been 12 people (men, traditionally—which highlights another interesting aspect of this case with an all-female jury panel).
In 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Utah that the Constitution requires a jury to be comprised of exactly twelve persons. However, in 1970, the Court revisited that holding. After assessing the legislative history of the Sixth Amendment and the purpose of the jury, the Court in Williams v. Florida held that Florida’s law permitting a six-person jury in a criminal trial does not violate the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a trial by jury. The Williams Court reasoned as follows:
The performance of [the jury’s] role is not a function of the particular number of the body that makes up the jury. To be sure, the number should probably be large enough to promote group deliberation, free from outside attempts at intimidation, and to provide a fair possibility for obtaining a representative cross-section of the community. But we find little reason to think that these goals are in any meaningful sense less likely to be achieved when the jury numbers six than when it numbers 12—particularly if the requirement of unanimity is retained.
Thus, the Court held, “the 12-man panel is not a necessary ingredient of ‘trial by jury.’” That holding has been heavily criticized by both legal scholars and social scientists, but is still good law today. Several states, including Florida—the state where both the original six-person jury was upheld and where the Zimmerman trial is being held—continue to use juries of fewer than twelve in criminal trials.
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