Whatever happened to a trial by jury?

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

A trial by jury is one of our fundamental rights and a bedrock of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, it has been dramatized so much in popular fiction that most of us have a pretty good idea of how it works.

But it’s getting harder and harder to see one in real life.

In 2015, there were just 1,160 jury trials across the state’s 92 counties out of 1,361,787 new criminal, civil, infraction and ordinance violations filed in Indiana. That’s nine fewer than in 2014, and a sharp decline from the 1,514 cases resolved by a jury in 2010, and the 2,450 jury trials in 2005, according to data from the Indiana Office of Court Services.

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush told The Times of Northwest Indiana there are several explanations for the 53 percent statewide decline in jury trials over the past decade. For one, she said, there were some 320,000 more cases filed in 2005 than in 2015. She also said civil cases tend more often to be resolved through mediation these days than they were in the past.

And for criminal cases, plea bargaining is the norm and a trial the rare exception. Prosecutors say without bargaining, the whole system would come grinding to a halt.

There are dangers in the gradual disappearance of jury trials. In civil cases, they help establish what is fair and reasonable and set the parameters of what plaintiffs should ask for. In criminal trials, they let defendants confront their accusers and put the burden of proof on the state.

And consider the experience lost, attorney Louis W. Voelker III wrote at the Indiana Lawyer website in 2015:

“Trials are the training ground in which this generation of leading trial lawyers prepares the next. Without them, who will stand ready to try the jury trials of the future (if any there be)? I haven’t met a trial attorney yet who didn’t feel a little rusty going into the courtroom when they hadn’t tried a case for some time … For that matter, with 452 judges in the courts of Indiana’s 92 counties, how much opportunity do they have to oversee civil jury trials? How effectively can the right to trial be exercised when there is no one left with experience doing the work?”

It probably is unrealistic to expect jury trials to be the bulk of the justice system’s work. But it is fair to wish so many people didn’t try to avoid them as much as they do.

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