Is it true that in US law jurors are not actually judging guilt, but rather whether the case against a person has been made in accordance with the concepts of all reasonable doubt? This meaning that US laws allows the possibility for an innocent person with an inept defense to be found guilty and also a guilty person faced with an inept prosecution being found innocent.

Is this concept discussed somewhere in the US Constitution maybe?

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    It may be semantics, or I'm not reading it properly, but a jury's finding of guilt is exactly when the case against a person has been made in accordance with the concepts of all reasonable doubt. And the law, in most civilised jurisdictions, allows for a fair trial; not a miscarriage of justice due to the ineptitude of counsel (on both sides).
    – user35069
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 12:48
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    For clarity, the verdict of US trails is not "guilty" vs. "Innocent", it's "guilty" vs "not guilty". The latter doesn't imply you were innocent, it means that there wasn't enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 19:58
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    "and also a guilty man faced with an inept prosecution being found innocent." Yes, this is entirely the possible, and the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof is meant to bias much more heavily toward this outcome, instead of "the possibility for an innocent man with an inept defense to be found guilty". It's a tradeoff between type 1 and type 2 errors.
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 20:00
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    There is also the possibility of inept or corrupt judges, for both jury trials and non-jury trials. But in theory, the right to appeal should remedy that. Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 20:36
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    I'm having trouble making sense of what you're trying to ask. US juries say "guilty" (if the guilt is beyond a reasonable doubt) or "not guilty". That is literally them judging guilt, by definition. Obviously the guilt of the accused (i.e. whether they actually committed the crimes they're accused of) will be the same regardless of what the jury finds. And obviously the jury can only determine guilt based on the evidence and arguments provided, and their own reasoning (none of which are perfect, so they can, and do, make mistakes).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 23:17

4 Answers 4


Short answer, yes, jurors will typically render a decision of guilt vs. innocence. This is pretty common in nations where the legal system is derived from British Common Law (about 2 billion people world wide live in a Common Law nation). The U.S. is unique in that it uses juries for Civil Trials as well as Criminal Trials. The right to a trial by jury is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution in which the 6th amendment guarantees the right to trial by impartial jury (contrary to popular opinion, it is not a jury of peers, as this alludes to the Peerage systems, which the U.S. never adopted). That line is from the Magna Carta which was influential in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

A jury usually consists of a panel of 12 people pulled from the locality of the crime, unless a change of venue has been granted because the alleged crime is so well known an impartial jury cannot be seated from the population. The jury will hear all the evidence from both sides, as well as opening and closing arguments. They will be provided "jury instructions" by the judge and must find if the evidence presented (The Facts) meet the criteria for a conviction of a charged crime (The Law).

In all Jury Trials, a Jury fills the role of "Trier of Fact" while the Judge fills the role of "Trier of Law." While the judge has the education background to understand what the law says constitutes a crime and how to find that law as well as how to make sure the defense and plaintiff/prosecution make fair arguments, any random group of 12 people can understand facts and put together whose story they believe, the defense's or the prosecution's.

In the case of an innocent person being convicted due to inept defense, this does happen and is horrible, but there are recourses in the form of appeals courts, which can overturn a trial and order that a new one be held (a mistrial, essentially, the original trial never happened and the person is legally innocent. Try again and do it proper this time.) Ineffective assistance of counsel is a valid grounds for appeal of a conviction and does happen.

In the other scenario, an inept prosecution, this does happen as well and it's not the fault of the jury that the guilty person went free, but for the prosecution. The prosecutor is at a disadvantage in every criminal case to balance out the fact that their office has more resources to bring to bear then most defendants. Among these handicaps is that their "story" about what happened must not have any "plot holes" in it (beyond a reasonable doubt evidentiary standard of proof) and that the prosecution has to convince 12 people that their story is the only way this could happen (try convincing 12 random people to agree to anything more complicated than "the sky is blue and grass is green") and they only have one shot to do it (Double Jeopardy essentially bars the prosecutor's office from initiating the appeals process... and blocks someone who is declared innocent from doing it because why the hell would you want to?!). Here, the problem is that the Prosecutor doesn't have to charge the accused right away and has a bit of generous time to investigate (depends on statute of limitations on particular crimes) ... but the right to a speedy trial means that once charges are filed, the clock starts on how long the prosecution has to bring the case. Delay to long and the judge will give a directed verdict that the person is innocent because the prosecution wasn't ready.

The importance of this fact that is a staple belief of Common Law is in the "Blackstone Ratio" which states:

Better that 10 guilty people go free than a single innocent person suffers

So the jury finding the prosecution inept is certainly the prosecutor's problem, not the jury's problem. It's a feature not a bug. If an innocent person does suffer, then we have a bug and we must see that it is corrected.

As a final note, the jury also has the power of Jury Nullification of the Law. In the U.S. it's not really certain if Jury Nullification invalidates the law completely but in effect, it allows the Jury to declare a person innocent because, while they believe the prosecution's story that the defendant did what they were accused of, they don't believe this person should be convicted because they believe the crime they're accused of should have never been a crime in the first place.

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    Only for criminal trials. For civil tort cases, the preponderance of evidence standard is used (basically would assign fault to both sides, with one side being more at fault than the other.). To give an example, yes, Timmy shouldn't have been playing by an open well with only a collie dog for supervision, but the person who owned the well on the unfenced property within walking distance to a small child who is routinely saved by a dog should have some blame for not seeing this as something of a problem. Thus damages are awarded to Timmy's family, but not as much as they wanted.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 13:24
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    “it is not a jury of peers, as this alludes to the Peerage systems” — isn't it a ‘jury of one's peers’, i.e. people on a par with the defendant, rather than Peers of the Realm?
    – gidds
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 22:26
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    @DavidWaterworth as far as I understand it, juries in trials of nobles were nobles, of the same rank, no less, and juries in trials of commoners were commoners.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 3:52
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    @AustinHemmelgarn: No, it doesn't work in reverse. Keep in mind juries have to be unbiased per U.S. constitution. Seating 12 white men as a jury in the Jim Crow south is clearly a violation of this rule. Just because it happened, does not mean it should have happened. No system is perfect and I am not discussing the imperfections in my answer, only the way the system ought be run. Jury Nullification didn't happen "in reverse" because one cannot nullify anything by affirming it.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 11:57
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    @hszmv That makes no sense. The word "peerage" comes from the word "peer" (meaning "an equal in rank, character or status"), and just meant the people that the King or Queen considered to be their peers. "Peer review", in scientific literature, means "review by other scientists of similar academic credentials", not nobles. The phrase "jury of one's peers" has nothing to do with the peerage system — it's a short-hand in the US Legal system for "an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed" per the 6th Amendment. Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 12:48

Is it true that in US law jurors are not actually judging guilt, but rather whether the case against a person has been made in accordance with the concepts of all reasonable doubt?

It is not true, legally speaking, because as far as the law is concerned it is the jury's verdict that decides the question of guilt, and the jury's verdict is determined by judging whether the case has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury therefore does judge guilt when it judges whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof.

If you want to ask about "guilt" more philosophically as the determination of whether the person actually committed the crime, well, that's generally unknowable, which is why the legal system came up with the idea of "reasonable doubt" in the first place.

As others point out, there's also the question of the application of law to various factual determinations, but those questions are generally settled before (or sometimes after) the jury's deliberations, and anyway that doesn't seem to be the issue you're trying to get at.

  • So does guilt mean something different in terms of the law and what it means colloquially? Guilt according to the law means the case has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt vs guilt colloquially means you actually did the crime?
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 7:01
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    @NeilMeyer that seems apparent Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 10:48
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    @NeilMeyer then you should make that clear in the question, perhaps with reference to a dictionary definition of guilt. The point of this answer is that it's really impossible for a jury to know for certain that someone did something, so of course they aren't actually charged with making that determination.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 18:29
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    @NeilMeyer "I was using the colloquial definition of the word guilt." We can't read your mind. When you ask a question on Law.SE, how can you expect to get anything besides Law answers?
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 15:54
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    @RonJohn that comment was just explaining the source of my misunderstanding, it was no criticism of any answers. We come here to learn things, don't we?
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 15:56

The jury determines guilty or not guilty, which could be phrased as “prosecution has proven the case” or “prosecution has not proven the case.”

Prior to conviction they are supposed to be presumed to be innocent, after conviction they are presumed to be guilty. Ineptitude only matters on the defendant’s side, as double jeopardy prevents inept prosecutors from retrying they case until they get it right. Gross ineptitude can be grounds for an appeal on the part of the defendant, although it’s really rare for that to succeed.


In the US the Jury is considered the "Fact Finder" so they are being asked to decide which of conflicting facts is true or false. One of the facts that is being contested in a criminal case is "did he/she/they do it?" The state says yes, the suspect says no. The Jury decides which statement is true.

If a fact is uncontested then the Jury doesn't decide on it.

There are different standards of proof depending on the type of case or the court it is heard in (civil or criminal).

Also in some instances the Judge can be the fact finder, foregoing a jury all together.

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    This doesn't appear to actually answer the question. Does the jury decide guilt or does it decide something different?
    – user4657
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 4:38
  • @Nij If the fact that is being determined is guilt or innocence, then yes. If the fact in question is something else, then the jury determines that. It's not a simple yes or no answer, but life seldom provides those.
    – Nate R
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 14:28
  • The question does not ask about finding of fact. It asks whether the jury is deciding guilt, or deciding something else that is not guilt. You're going into a lot of detail that is pointless, instead of at least addressing the basic question.
    – user4657
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 23:25

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