Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Member Directory
Sign In


Forgot your password?

Haven't registered yet?

Legal News
Master Calendar

10/23/2014 » 10/24/2014
2014 Family Law Seminar

10/27/2014
Termination of Parental Rights (Telephone CLE)

10/28/2014
2014 Nuts & Bolts Seminar (Des Moines)

10/30/2014
2014 Nuts & Bolts Seminar (Coralville)

So You Are Going To Be A Witness
Share |

Jury service is one of the most important duties of citizenship. The right to trial by jury is one of the most important guarantees of our freedom contained in the U. S. Constitution. However, this right would not mean very much without people who were willing to serve as jurors. When you are summoned to jury service, please answer the call to serve. It is your civic duty. It is your chance to participate directly in our democracy. To learn more about Iowa's jury selection process by reading the information below or you may view the latest jury instructional video - A Jury of Our Peers.

What is a jury?
Very briefly: In our system of justice, a jury is a group of citizens who serve the court by listening impartially to the evidence in a case, and to the judge's instructions on how the law applies to the case. The jury then decides the important facts of the case. In a civil case, the jury decides whose side is supported by the facts. In a criminal case, the jury decides whether or not the facts presented by the state prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty. For more details, read on.

How did they get my name?
Everybody who is asked to serve on a jury gets on that list in the exact same way--by random selection from public lists such as voter rolls and license registrations. The idea is to find a group of jurors who represent a cross-section of the whole community.

Why was I chosen?
Centuries of experience and tradition tell us that members of the community, using their common sense and with no vested interest in the outcome of the trial, are the best people to decide what the facts really say about a complaint or conflict. In a criminal trial, it's an ancient principle of English democracy that the state by itself cannot decide who is guilty; it must convince you and your fellow jurors beyond a reasonable doubt to get a guilty verdict. Our Constitution says that many civil cases must also be decided by a similar test: the common-sense judgment of a group of fair-minded citizens.

Think about it this way: if you end up in court someday, wouldn't you want fair-minded fellow citizens who understand you to be on your jury? By helping the court today to provide someone else a fair trial, you help ensure that the system remains trustworthy for you and your grandchildren.

There is a place for experts in the legal process. Lawyers are educated in the principles and details of the law, for example, and expert witnesses may help analyze the evidence. Judges preside in the courtroom, making sure that the laws and rules of evidence are applied fairly. Appellate courts can help correct errors in procedures, but our system relies on you and other jurors to hear the evidence and discern the facts.

Here are the only qualifications you need to serve on a jury. You must:

  • Be a citizen of the United States;
  • Be a resident citizen of the county where the case is pending;
  • Be 18 years of age or older;
  • Be competent to serve (not incompetent by virtue of mental illness, mental retardation, or intoxication);
  • Not be a convicted felon, unless civil rights have been restored or the conviction pardoned; and
  • Be able to communicate in the English language.

If you don't meet all of these requirements, you may not serve.

How can I be exempted or deferred?
This is one of those times when the community comes to you and interrupts your normal routine for a brief period for the good of everyone. If only people with lots of leisure time were on juries, those juries would not be truly representative of the community.

We are all equally likely to be asked to serve on a jury--your busy neighbor or competitor no less than you. Inconvenience is not an excuse to avoid jury duty--but just think for a moment how inconvenient it would be to live in a country where you had no right to a jury trial!

Inconvenience doesn't get us off the hook, but genuine hardship is another matter. Again, the court or commission on your jury summons document is the best source of information, but in general, the law provides that some people can be excused if necessary. You may be exempted or deferred from jury service if you fall into any of the following categories:

  • Engaged in work necessary to the public health, safety, or good order;
  • A full-time student in a college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school;
  • Primary caregiver having active care and custody of a child six years of age or younger, with no reasonably available alternative childcare;
  • A primary teacher in a home study program who during the week of trial is actively engaged in teaching and no reasonable alternative for the child or children is available;
  • A person 70 years of age or older may request that his/her name be removed from the jury list of the county; or
  • A service member on ordered military duty, or the spouse of such service member, upon presentation of a copy of official military orders or a written verification signed by the juror's commanding officer.

If I'm not exempted or deferred, does this jury summons mean that I'm definitely going to be a juror in a trial?
No, not yet! You are being asked to assemble with other citizens to form a group of potential jurors. For any given trial, the actual jurors are selected by a process by which you and others may be asked questions by the judge and the lawyers for both sides. Depending on the type of case, the initial panel of jurors may have as many as 30 or 40 members, and the final trial jury will have just twelve members (civil trials and felony criminal trials) or six members (misdemeanor criminal trials). You might be excused for any number of reasons, or for no reason that you can figure out. Even if you don't end up on a jury, your willingness to be a member of the pool is an essential part of the jury process.

What's next if I'm qualified to serve?
To start, here's how a trial comes about in the first place--at least in civil cases. (We'll talk about criminal trials later.)

The person who begins a lawsuit, known as the plaintiff, starts the whole process by going to the court and filing a written statement called a complaint. The court notifies the organization or person being complained about--in other words, the defendant--who files a document in defense of their position. We call that document the answer.

Together, these documents--the complaint and the answer--are known as the pleadings, and the disagreements or disputes reflected in those documents make up the issues in the case.

These documents don't constitute evidence, they simply describe the case from each side's point of view. If the parties and their lawyers don't succeed in reconciling their dispute in an out-of-court settlement, the court then "tries" the case to make the best possible resolution according to the law.

What should I expect at trial?
If you're on the jury chosen for this case, the judge will review the rules of jury service early on in the trial, and, depending on the length of the trial, may remind you several times. These rules are all intended to defend the fairness, integrity, and dignity of the court.

The most important rule is Don't discuss the case! Don't talk about the case with anyone, including other jurors, at any time, until the judge explicitly tells you to. So:

  • Don't discuss the case during the trial itself, or the recesses.
  • Don't discuss it or listen to others discussing it inside the courtroom or outside the courtroom.
  • Don't chat or mix with the plaintiffs, the defendants, the lawyers, or the witnesses; don't discuss the case with reporters or spectators, either.
  • Don't accept favors from anyone with an interest in the case. If anyone with an interest in the outcome of the case is trying to make contact with you, mention this privately to the judge or to the jury bailiff.
  • Don't do anything that might cause you to favor one party or another; for example, don't conduct any research or investigation on your own.

The whole idea is to form your judgment based only on the evidence, legal arguments and the law given to you by the judge in open court.

Remember to keep an open mind during all phases of the trial. Pay close attention to all witnesses and evidence. The judge or bailiff will let you know how to make requests during the trial itself; otherwise, don't interrupt the proceedings. Only the lawyers and the judge speak to the witnesses.

What are the phases of a trial?
Most trials go like this:

  • Phase 1 - Opening statements: The attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant take turns telling you what they intend to prove to you in the course of the trial. In other words, you hear each side's statement of the case. They might tell you what evidence they plan to present, but these opening statements themselves are not evidence.
  • Phase 2 - The evidence: Each side then presents evidence. Usually, the plaintiff presents evidence first. Then it's the defense's turn to present evidence, after which the plaintiff may offer you evidence intended to counter the defense's evidence.

Most evidence consists of witnesses who testify under oath or affirmation (meaning that they promise to tell the truth--and not telling the truth under oath or affirmation is a crime in itself), or documents relating to the case.

Sometimes the lawyers provide testimony that has been written or recorded before the trial--this testimony is known as a deposition, and has the same standing as evidence presented by live witnesses.

When an attorney for one side questions a witness who is speaking for that side, it's called direct examination. The attorney for the other side may then take a turn cross-examining that witness, after which the lawyer who first called this witness may follow up with redirect examination.

During this process, the lawyers may sometimes object to questions or evidence, meaning that they are asking the judge to rule on whether the question or evidence is acceptable under law. The judge may agree with--sustain--the objection, not allowing the evidence; or he or she may overrule the objection.

  • Phase 3 - Final arguments: When the attorneys have presented all their evidence and questioned all the witnesses, they take turns summarizing their case to you, reminding you of what you have heard from the witnesses and why they believe their side has presented a convincing case. These final arguments, again, are not evidence.
  • Phase 4 - The charge: At this point, the judge speaks directly to you and your fellow jurors. Pay close attention--the judge is charging (instructing) you concerning your responsibilities. He or she tells you the questions you are to decide as a jury, and the laws that apply to those questions.
  • Phase 5 - The verdict: The judge tells you when it is time for you and the other jurors to go to the jury room and consider your decision--verdict--concerning the questions the judge has put to you. Now, for the first time, you are free to talk about the case among yourselves.

How do we jurors arrive at a verdict?
First you choose a foreman or forewoman to preside over the discussions and represent you in communicating with the judge or court staff. Choose someone who seems able to run meetings in a fair and orderly way; if you have relevant experience yourself, let people know.

As you deliberate, be sure to listen to each other with an open mind, taking into account all the evidence you have heard and each person's reflections on that evidence and on the laws that the judge has explained to you.

The foreman or forewoman polls the whole jury from time to time to find out whether you are all agreed on the verdict, and signs any requests to the judge--such as a request for a clarification or additional charge.

In a civil trial, you are considering whether you as a jury unanimously agree that the plaintiff's case is supported by a preponderance of the evidence--or you unanimously agree that it is not. The burden is on the plaintiff's side to convince you on this point.

"Preponderance of the evidence" is defined as that superior weight of evidence, which, while not enough to wholly free the mind from a reasonable doubt, is sufficient to incline a reasonable and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than to the other.

What happens after we've decided on a verdict?
When you have reached this unanimous decision, the foreman or forewoman signs the written verdict on the jury's behalf. Usually the judge then calls the trial back into open session for a public reading of the verdict.

Once the verdict has been announced and the judge ends the trial, you are free to talk about the case with anybody--or, if you prefer, with nobody. Whatever you decide, you will know that you have made your own unique personal contribution to American democracy--taking your turn to be sure that everyone has the right to trial by jury. Be proud!

How are criminal trials different than civil trials?
The basic mission of a jury is the same in both kinds of trials: to listen to the evidence with an open mind and to apply the law according to the judge's instructions. But in criminal cases, the side that makes the complaint or accusation--the prosecution--has a higher burden to meet: in order for you and the other jury members to decide in favor of the prosecution, you must be unanimously convinced that the prosecution has proved every accusation of crime--that is, every point you're being asked to give a verdict on--beyond a reasonable doubt.

"A reasonable doubt" is a doubt based upon a reason, and for which a good explanation can be given. It is a doubt upon which a reasonable person would act, or decline to act, in a matter of importance or of grave concern to himself or herself. It is the doubt of a fair-minded, impartial juror honestly seeking the truth.

In criminal cases, the jury's verdict is expressed as "guilty" or "not guilty." If you as a jury decide that a defendant is not guilty, then the defendant is free and the case is over.

If you find the defendant guilty, the judge will set the sentence at that point or in a later session.

However, if the jury finds the defendant guilty of a crime punishable by death, the judge will not impose the death penalty unless your verdict includes findings of aggravating circumstances and a recommendation that the death penalty be imposed. (In any such case, the judge will tell you what rules and choices apply to your decisions.)

There are some other differences between a civil and a criminal trial:

  • In civil trials, complaints can be brought by individuals, private organizations, or the government. In contrast, all criminal trials start with an indictment or accusation from the state, charging that the defendant has broken a law. The defendant does not file a written reply. The court starts with the assumption that the defendant denies the charges.
  • The attorney representing the state in felony cases (potentially punishable by more than a year in prison) is called the district attorney; the attorney representing the state in misdemeanor cases (potentially involving a year or less in prison) is called the solicitor.
  • In a non-capital felony case (that is, a felony case that doesn't potentially involve the death penalty), the court begins with a panel of 30 jurors, and each side is entitled to strike (dismiss) as many as nine jurors, leaving twelve for the trial. In misdemeanor cases, the court begins with a panel of twelve, and the lawyers may strike three each, resulting in a six-person trial jury.

Am I paid for jury duty?
Jury duty is a civic obligation, not a job, and does not come with a salary. However, most jurisdictions provide some compensation; in addition, your employer may be required to give leave for jury service. For details, contact the authority that issued your jury summons.


This text is an informal summary of the law, not the law itself! If you have received a jury summons, the court clerk or jury commission contact specified on the summons is the most reliable source for additional information on your obligation to serve. Be sure to keep the document and follow its instructions. In case of any disagreement between this text and the actual law, the law wins!


The Iowa State Bar Association • 625 East Court Avenue • Des Moines, IA 50309
Ph. (515) 243-3179 • Fax (515) 243-2511
Email: isba@iowabar.org