The critically acclaimed 1957 film “12 Angry Men” is a classic. The courtroom drama focuses on 12 jurors locked in heated debate while considering the fate of a young man accused of murder. Like many cinematic productions it takes artistic license when it comes to the rules of evidence and other matters regarding the law. Still, it provides a useful view of the drama that can take place in the jury room after both sides have made their closing arguments at trial.
The right to a trial by jury is a cornerstone of the American system of justice. Yet some might be surprised at the origins of a 12-person jury. Many presume that it came from England as all of our states except Louisiana base their state laws in part on English common law. This is partially true. The system did migrate here from the British Isles. But who did they adopt the practice from? The answer might surprise you. Many historians agree that the 12-person jury system came from the Vikings!
Most associate the Vikings with raiding, a practice they did engage in. But they also settled lands in England. Boundaries and who ruled areas of land often changed in England. In addition to the island’s older inhabitants (the Celtic Britons), the Romans, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes among others all settled the island from the continent and controlled different swaths of territory during different periods of time. The Vikings were part of this mix. From approximately 865 to 954 “Danelaw”, was the law of the land in large parts of northern and eastern England. The name flows from the fact that a Danish king was the ruler. Danelaw provided that legal proceedings be decided by 12 men. Hence the origin of the practice still employed today in American courtrooms.
Both a plaintiff and defendant have the right to demand a trial by 12 jurors in civil cases filed in the State and Superior courts in Georgia. The decision to request the same is a strategic one based on many factors. Not a topic that can be explored in depth in a short article like this one. Defendants in criminal proceedings also have this right and it is in this setting that the subject receives much more attention in the media, literature and film.
Being available to serve on a jury is a civic duty that all adult citizens should take seriously. Without jurors, the mechanism of our judicial system cannot operate. It is a contemporary problem that far too many people fail to show up for jury duty. Those who ignore such a summons are risking being held in contempt of court and can be jailed for such an offense.
When it comes to contracts, a well-developed body of law allows the signers of the same to waive a trial by jury and instead agree to binding arbitration to settle disputes. This solution offers many advantages. Arbitration is generally less expensive and takes less time to resolve than a trial by jury. It also can lessen the odds of an erroneous outcome, especially when very complex and technical issues are involved. However, this solution is not always ideal. Thus, it is wise to always consult with an attorney for input prior to signing or drafting a contract to receive advice on this issue.
The Vikings Age is over. Yet Viking culture still influences us in many ways. In addition to our jury system, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all named after Viking gods. Long before he was depicted as a Marvel superhero, Thor had a day of the week named after him.
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