What is jury deliberation?

Deliberation is the phase of a civil or criminal trial in which the jury meets in private – usually in a jury room set aside specifically for this purpose – to discuss the evidence presented in court and decide whether the defendant is liable (in a civil case) or guilty (in a criminal case).

Before beginning its deliberations, the jury will usually be given detailed instructions by the trial judge.  These instructions explain the laws that apply to the case and what the jury should do in applying the law to the facts in order to figure out its verdict.  Sometimes, jury instructions can be quite long, particularly in complicated cases with multiple plaintiffs or defendants or cases that are based on complex issues.  In these cases, some courts will send jurors off to deliberate with one or more verdict forms that walk jurors through the questions they need to answer in the case.

Unlike trials, which follow many complex rules and a common pattern, there is no prescribed process for jury deliberations.  Jurors are free to discuss issues in whatever manner and whatever order they wish.  In addition, most courts are not allowed to inquire into what the jurors did while they were deliberating, except in very limited ways relating to some cases of juror misconduct.   The freedom permitted to jurors in deliberations to discuss the case, and the freedom jurors usually have from inquiries into what they did in the jury room, is what has lead some researchers to refer to the jury room as a “black box.”

While a jury is in deliberations, it is often guarded by a bailiff or U.S. marshal to ensure that nobody enters the jury room during deliberations and that no jurors leave the jury room to access news or other materials that may affect the jury’s decision.  These rules are in place for nearly all jury deliberations, even if the jurors are not officially sequestered.  They are intended to protect the integrity of the jury’s verdict by limiting jurors to the information they heard during the trial.

Jurors are not allowed to consider outside evidence, like news sources or their own visits to a crime or accident scene, during deliberations.  They are, however, allowed to use their own common sense and real-world experience to decide if one version of events is more plausible than another or if they think a witness is lying.

For instance, in a personal injury case, suppose that the injured plaintiff accuses the defendant of hitting her with his car while she was walking her dog.  The defendant argues that he couldn’t have hit the plaintiff with his car because he was at a dentist’s office on the other side of town when the accident occurred.  The plaintiff, however, claims that the defendant could have driven quickly to the scene of the accident, hit the plaintiff, then driven back in the five minutes the dentist was out of the exam room.  The jurors may not go to the accident scene by themselves and measure how far it is from the dentist’s office, for example, but they may use their own experiences about how long it takes to drive across town and back to decide whether the defendant could have made the trip and hit the plaintiff in five minutes or less.

Jurors may also ask questions of the judge if they do not understand the instructions given.  These questions are usually passed from the jury to the judge in writing, carried by the bailiff responsible for taking care of the jurors during deliberations.  Not all juror questions will be answered by the judge.  Questions whose answers might sway the jury one way or the other, such as “should we vote guilty?”, are typically not answered by judges.

Once a jury makes its decision in deliberations, it returns to the courtroom, where the judge will ask for the jury’s verdict.  The verdict is usually announced by the jury foreperson, whom the jurors are often instructed to choose when they begin their deliberations.  Jurors are not asked for the reasoning they used to reach their verdict or the reasons they voted the way they did.

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