The most famous incident in America that gave a tremendous boost to the idea of the right to have a jury trial occurred in New York in 1734. At that time New York was one of thirteen British colonies administered by a royal governor appointed by the king of England. Peter Zenger, a journalist, had written an article ridiculing this official. The British authorities in response charged Zenger with seditious libel. Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, put on a defense stating that his client was not guilty because the statements in Zenger’s article were true.
However, there were two problems with Hamilton’s trial strategy. First, he was unable to bring in witnesses who could testify as to the truth of Zenger’s article. More important, as the judge pointed out, this defense could not be used for the crime with which Zenger was charged. As an alternative, Hamilton said that the question of whether Zenger had committed seditious libel should not be decided by the judge but should be left to the jury to decide. The judge capitulated to Hamilton’s request and permitted the jury to return a not guilty verdict. The jury in this case took this action based on the principle that a trial cannot be fair if the accused is prevented by the court from putting on a defense.
From colonial times until well into the twentieth century, not all citizens of the various states were universally allowed to serve on a jury. At first, only white men owning property were permitted to be on a jury. After the United States became a nation, states were allowed to enact their own restrictions on jury service based on race, gender, and ownership of property. Some of those denied the right to serve on a jury did not see these restrictions removed until well after they were given the right to vote.
Because in America’s early history there were so few lawyers who were specifically trained in the law, juries exercised the power to decide not only factual questions concerning a case but also questions as to how the law should be interpreted in applying it to the facts of the case. Judges on their part were allowed to make comments regarding the evidence presented at trial. Today juries in all states can only decide questions of fact, such as whether a car ran a red light prior to an accident. They can no longer decide questions of law which consist of what the law is on a particular issue of the trial and how it is to be interpreted so it can be correctly applied to the facts of the case. Judges can no longer comment on the evidence because this is seen as preventing the jury from being impartial.
In criminal trials, it is always required that jury verdicts of guilty or innocent must be unanimous. Beginning in California in 1879, this requirement was phased out for civil trials, proceedings that do not involve criminal accusations, such as whether a driver was not careful enough in backing out of his driveway and injured a pedestrian.