Jury Procedures in the Early Days

Knight2When I was writing my first historical single title, KNIGHT ON THE TEXAS PLAINS, my editor asked me how they chose juries back in the 1800s so I had to do some research. My heroine, Jessie Foltry, was accused of murdering her first husband. She ran from the law and into Duel McClain’s arms. They subsequently married and set about raising a child that Duel had won in a poker game. As with most stories dealing with a character who runs, Jessie was tracked down. In this case by Duel’s brother no less and taken to stand trial. That’s when I knew I had to research juries and the legal system.
Jury members were either handpicked by the judge (which sometimes led to grossly unfair disadvantages if the judge had an ax to grind with either party) or names were drawn from a hat.

GuiltySometimes they chose six and sometimes twelve jurors. Except in certain states, only white males were chosen. No women or other nationalities were allowed to serve.

Fact: In 1970 the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that a jury panel of six did not violate the accused Sixth Amendment Rights and the defendant’s guilty verdict was upheld as Constitutional. I did not know this. I’d always thought twelve people comprised every jury.

Another thing that really struck me was learning about Jury Nullification (the process whereby a jury in a criminal case nullifies a law by acquitting a defendant regardless of the weight of evidence against the defendant.) In other words, nullification often happens when the jury believes some social issue is larger than the case itself. That’s happened pretty frequently.

jury roomTake the case of John Peter Zenger in 1733. Zenger was an editor and publisher of a New York newspaper. He printed another man’s article criticizing William Cosby, the Governor of New York. Zenger was arrested and tried for seditious libel. Although he was guilty of printing the anonymous article in the newspaper according to the law at the time, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict effectively nullifying the law. Zenger’s attorney, Andrew Hamilton, established the precedent that a statement, even if defamatory, is not libel if it can be proven, thus affirming freedom of the press in America.

That’s what happens to Jessie in Knight on the Texas Plains. The jury knew she was guilty of murdering her first husband but realized that she was justified in doing so and that she was protecting her own life. There wasn’t a law at the time against a man beating his wife but there should’ve been and they knew it.

Another fact: It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress passed the Jury Selection and Service Act. It reformed the selection process, mandating that a pool of jury names be selected from registered voters and that the names be randomly selected. I can’t believe it took that long. That’s astounding to me.

And lastly….In 1870 the first woman juror, Eliza Stewart of Laramie, Wyoming was chosen.

Do you know of any sensational cases that aroused your interest? O.J. Simpson’s trial comes to my mind.

The print version of the book is no longer available but it’s in the Amazon Kindle store with a new cover. Click HERE for the link. And don’t forget about FOREVER HIS TEXAS BRIDE in December!

Every week of November I’m giving away a western Christmas ornament so leave a comment.


Jury Procedures in the Early Days — 14 Comments

  1. Just recently read the book. So enjoyable I am sending to a friend. Just wrapped it this morning. I am happy that you do your research. I am a Texas Yankee( really should be a Yankee in Texas), I grew up in NY and never really learned Texas history. Your books give me insight with a bit of romance. Cathy

    • Hi Cathy……Thanks for coming by. Your comment thrilled me. I’m very touched that something I wrote so long ago is still being read and talked about. Thank you for passing the book along to your friend. I hope he/she enjoys it.

      I’m glad I can share Texas history with those like you who live very far from here. Isn’t it great that books can let you visit a place without actually leaving your house? I chuckled at your Yankee in Texas line. Reminded me of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. LOL! I hereby proclaim you an honorary Texan!!

  2. What an awesome post, Linda. I had conducted some research for Lena’s Courage since the hero is a lawyer. I knew women could serve on juries in 1870s Wyoming, but some of the other facts are news to me. Well done!

    • Hi Ruby……Glad you dropped by. I’m glad I could share a few unknown tidbits with you. I’m looking forward to your next book. Wishing you much success and every happiness.

  3. Love your research and your writing, Linda! I’m with you – I can’t believe it took until the 60s to reform the jury selection. History is astounding at times.

    • Hi Jacqui…….Thank you for stopping by and huge thanks for the tweets and FB posts! I deeply appreciate that. The way the jury system was set up allowed for lots of corruption. Judges could predict the outcome any way they wanted just by the jurors he selected. I’m glad we have a little better system in place today although it’s not perfect by any means.

      Have a great week, my friend.

  4. I recently read Knight on the Texas Plains, and I enjoyed it very much. I like to see justice triumphing, unlike what happened in the OJ Simpson trial.

    I think that writing historical stories is so difficult because you do have to do the research. I have actually learned a lot while reading historicals in addition to being entertained by the story.

    • Hi Cheryl C…….Thank you for your comment and kind words about Knight on the Texas Plains. That means a lot to me. Yes, sometimes writing historicals is hard when I can’t find the information I need. Even with the Internet and my extensive personal research collection, I’m sometimes unable to locate things. Drives me crazy. Though it may take quite a while, I always find it though. I agree that historicals that are rich in detail can certainly educate as much as entertain. You get quite a bargain.

      Thanks for coming to chat. Have a great week.

    • Hi Alisa…….I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for coming to visit. I’ve missed you.

  5. O.J.’s trial is the only one that comes to my mind. I have read this book and I loved it. It was an awesome read.

    • Hi Quilt Lady! Thank you for paying me a visit. Right now we have a big trial going on where a very well-known doctor killed another. A very sensational trial. I can’t wait to see what the verdict will be. I’m so glad you enjoyed Knight on the Texas Plains. Thank you for your kind words.