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What is a Petit Jury?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 16, 2024

A petit jury is a group of people who weigh the facts of a case and return a verdict. Juries are used as a check on the criminal system so that judges are not all-powerful, and they are a common feature of the legal system in many nations. The number of people seated on a petit jury varies by nation, with 12 jurors and two alternates being a common number. As a general rule, all citizens are eligible for jury duty and they may be issued summonses by the government when it is necessary to convene a jury for a trial.

Members of a petit jury are supposed to sit through the trial and listen to the case as it is presented. Once both sides have rested, the judge delivers instructions to the jury which the jury are supposed to use when determining whether or not the defendant is guilty under the law, given the facts presented. A petit jury can return a verdict, and in some cases it may also make recommendations for sentencing and damages.

Petit juries are designed to be drawn from a broad cross section of society, so that the trial is as fair as possible. Before being seated, members of the jury are questioned so that people who would conflict can be struck from the jury. For example, in a rape case, rape victims would not be seated on the jury, because they might have difficulty viewing the case without emotions. People may also be struck because they do not understand the language used in the courtroom, or they lack the mental capacity to evaluate the evidence.

Ideally, a petit jury will be able to return a verdict after deliberating in private over the facts of the case and the instructions from the judge. Sometimes, it is impossible for the jurors to agree, in which case they may indicate that they are “hung” or “deadlocked.” Communications between the jury and the court are usually presented by the foreperson or presiding juror, a member of the jury whom other members elect as a representative.

It is important for members of a petit jury to obey the instructions from the judge, because their role is to determine the veracity of the facts, not the appropriateness of the law. For example, jurors may strongly feel that a defendant is guilty, but the terms of the jury instructions may indicate that they are actually obliged to find the defendant not guilty, given the facts presented. This situation can arise when jurors hear testimony which is later stricken from the record because it is inadmissible. Likewise, jurors may find a defendant committed an offense which they personally feel is not illegal, but they would be required to vote guilty in accordance with instructions from the judge.

A related concept, the grand jury, is a jury which is convened to hear evidence to determine whether there is enough evidence for a trial. If the jury believes that the evidence is firm enough, they can hand down an indictment which will allow the legal system to move to trial. Grand juries usually have more members than petit juries.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sneakers41 — On Oct 11, 2010

Sunshine31-Those individuals that are US citizens with an active driver’s license bring a jury pool together.

This petit jury selection is limited to 9 that will serve on the jury with two alternates. The grand jury vs. petit jury requires 16 to 23 people to serve.

Often attorneys have to always remember that jury nullification is a consideration and often attorneys seek assistance from forensic psychologists that help attorneys understand the potential psychological makeup of the potential jurors.

These psychologists help the attorney select the best jury for their side.

By sunshine31 — On Oct 11, 2010

Oasis11-Here in the United States a petit jury selection is made by a voir dire exam. Basically the potential juror receives a jury summons to appear at the courthouse for a voir dire examination.

This is a selection process in which both sides of the case try to select the most favorable jury that would favor their side.

First a questionnaire is given to all potential jurors and based on how they answered those questions they may be excused or told to stay.

The next phase is the formal examination in which both attorneys from each side ask a series of targeted questions to determine if this potential juror would be ideal for the case.

Jury selection tips really include focusing on all potential bias that a person may have as well as their demeanor.

By oasis11 — On Oct 11, 2010

Anon75224-That is a really good question, but the United States legal system uses a jury trial.

France and Italy use a trial my judge which does not use a jury at all. In that case the judge hears both sides and makes a decision.

It is a bit more subjective because a judge as impartial as they claim to be will have some bias and it might affect the verdict.

This is why in the United States we offer petit jury trials so that every defendant gets to be judged by a jury of his or her peers.

In Iran for example, there was a case in which three American hikers were accused of espionage by the Iranian government and jailed for a year without a trial.

This is something that would never happen here as everyone is afford a jury trial and even offered an attorney for free if they are indigent.

By anon75224 — On Apr 06, 2010

Nice article. This contains a lot of information in a little space. So does this apply to other countries' juries, or only the U.S.? I know legal systems differ, but not the degree that they differ.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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