Kitsap Crime and Justice

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How 12 Became Jury’s Magic Number (Hint: it was an ‘Accident’)

December 4th, 2008 by josh farley

Photo courtesy of http://www.impawards.com/

You might remember watching the legal thriller “12 Angry Men,” in civics or social studies class way-back-when (or, perhaps, because it is a classic of cinema, at least in my opinion).

But have you ever wondered why it isn’t “8 Angry Men?” Or maybe “14 Angry Men?”

Turns out it was a “historical accident.” And here’s the story of how such a mishap occurred.  (See the photo credit for the poster here.)

Twelve person juries date back to pre-industrial England (the reason for which, I must admit, I can’t find). Apparently, one thing our American founders weren’t rebelling against the redcoats about was the number of peers to decide the fate of defendants, because we seem to have inherited 12 from them.

The U.S. Supreme Court had long held that 12-person juries were covered under the Sixth Amendment. But in 1970, the court changed its tune in Williams v. Florida, saying the jury size had been the product of a “historical accident.”

Twelve, however, seems to still be the norm, but there are certainly exceptions. Here in Kitsap, 12 jurors (with an alternate or two) are used in Kitsap County Superior Court. In Kitsap County’s district court (for misdemeanor level cases), only 6 jurors decide.

And, as you might have seen in a story in the Kitsap Sun’s Dec. 4 edition, a federal jury of eight peers ruled to clear Kitsap County from a discrimination lawsuit.

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One Response to “How 12 Became Jury’s Magic Number (Hint: it was an ‘Accident’)”

  1. Tom Rosendale Says:

    What was it about the accident that made it ‘historical’? Without more information, their decision may have been the ‘historical’ accident. Why was there only 8 or even as much as 8 on the federal jury mentioned?

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