The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

Speedy and Public Trial, Impartial Jury, and Being Informed of the Accusation

Local and Impartial?

Ideals at Odds

The two 6th Amendment guarantees about juries—first, that they must be drawn from the state and district where the crime took place and, second, that the jury shall be impartial—may at times be at odds. During the ratification debates, delegates from North Carolina, Virginia, and Massachusetts all argued on behalf of local juries precisely because they would have already formed opinions about the crime and the accused. “The very intention of the trial by jury,” according to Joseph McDowall of North Carolina, “is, that the accused may be tried by persons who come from the vicinage or neighborhood, who may be acquainted with his character.”

Abraham Holmes of Massachusetts had objected to the wording of the Constitution because it did not adequately provide for “a right to a trial as free and impartial as the lot of humanity will admit of.” But after insisting on impartial juries, in the next breath he insisted that local juries were imperative, because only they “have an opportunity to form a judgment of the character of the person charged with the crime, and also to judge of the credibility of the witnesses.” But do prior judgments about the suspect and witnesses in a case destroy the jury’s impartiality?

Many other delegates believed they did. Governor Samuel Johnston of North Carolina criticized the prevailing practice of Virginia, which often summoned its juries “from the by-standers.” He suggested that the provisions of the unamended Constitution might have some advantages: “We may expect less partiality when the trial is by strangers; and were I to be tried for my property or life, I would rather be tried by disinterested men, who were not biased, than by men who were perhaps intimate friends of my opponent.” Christopher Gore of Massachusetts likewise disagreed with his colleague’s wish to provide for juries that would know the “character of the person charged with the crime.” He pointed out that “knowing the character and circumstances of the party in trial” would not always be “promotive of justice.” In fact, it would be better if “the jury could be perfectly ignorant of the person in trial”; for whenever a “jury judge from any other circumstances but what are part of the cause in question, they are not impartial.”