A jury of their peers: Service of 12 leaves lasting impact

“All rise,” the bailiff bellows, echoing throughout the dark and dated courtroom. “The court is now again in session.”

Members of the jury file in slowly and take their seats in the jury box.

Draped in a long, black robe, the judge asks everyone to please be seated.

The long, wooden benches creak as those in the audience try to get comfortable once again.

Lawyers shuffle papers and whisper with one another, comparing notes before the bantering begins.

“It’s inherently dramatic,” Nodaway County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rice said. “Sometimes you’ll work six months or over a year on a single case. And then you get 12 people who have never heard anything about it and they have to make a decision that impacts (a person’s) life. There are significant consequences.”

Right…to a jury trial

The jury system in the United States can be traced back to 12th Century England when King Henry II used a jury for their knowledge of a particular case. It evolved in the 15th century when Henry VI turned the jury into the trier of the evidence.

The colonists brought these ideals with them to America and the right to a jury trial was included in all 13 of the original states’ constitutions and in the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Missouri Constitution grants everyone the right to a trial by jury in both criminal and civil cases (see the adjacent box, Jury Service Glossary). With criminal cases, this right only applies to serious crimes, which carry a potential sentence of more than six months.

Right…here in Nodaway County

The Nodaway County Courthouse sits in the very center of Maryville on the downtown square and very nearly the center of the county.

Built in 1881, the red brick structure, trimmed in sandstone with a renovated cupola and clock tower, stands as a beacon of the county and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Once visitors make the climb up the large marble stairs to the second floor, they are advised to turn off cell phones and pagers and have no food or drink before entering either one of the Nodaway County Circuit Court courtrooms.

On this particular fall day, a civil case is being heard by Circuit Judge Roger Prokes and jurors have just returned from a lunch break.

Five men. Seven women. Ranging in age from their early 20s to their 70s. One alternate. A man in his 30s.

Yellow badges identify each juror with a number, not their names.

Some look around at the audience. Some grab notepads to resume notetaking. Some look out the windows to the world outside.

And then the case resumes once again.

Right…time for civic responsibility

Serving on a jury can be seen as a civic responsibility. For Thomas Jefferson, it was more important than all other civic duties including voting.

“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

Today, the jury system continues to depend on the service of American citizens.

While a jury trial can be inconvenient for many, Rice believes it’s important for a community to have them.

“A jury trial is a lot of people putting in a lot of time and it’s inconvenient for a lot of folks,” Rice said. “But I think we do that, though, so people are kept accountable whenever they do wrong.”

Editor’s note: this is the first in a series about jury trials. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore the role of jurors, the trial process and more. Some information for this article came from the Missouri Bar Association, mobar.org, and the Missouri Courts System, courts.mo.gov.

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