Juries not only practice responsible democracy, but also help spread the concept, Dwyer says. “With about 1.5 million Americans serving in courtrooms each year, the trial jury achieves a unique dispersal of governmental power. Far from being obsolete, it gains importance as elected officials become more distant from those they represent. … The jury, by placing decisions directly in the hands of the people, bridges the widening gap between citizens and their government.”

While Dwyer’s generalizations and theories are fascinating, the book is grounded in specifics. Most of the book’s first half is historical. Dwyer is not a trained historian, but he does a fine job nonetheless of making the past come alive. He explains how jury systems evolved in various parts of the world, devoting most of his historical research to England.

Jurors used to be at great personal risk if their verdict contravened what those in power wished. How juries gradually gained independence from rulers is one of the most compelling historical stories imaginable, and Dwyer does not disappoint. A turning point arrived in 1670, with the London trial of William Penn and Quaker compatriot William Mead. Accused of violating a law criminalizing religious practice outside the Anglican liturgy, Penn and Mead fought the charges vigorously, while the 12 jurors resisted intense pressure to find the defendants guilty. Four of the jurors held to their not guilty verdict despite fines, despite imprisonment. Their bravery emboldened future jurors.

As he moves the book into the 21st century, Dwyer finds inspirational examples as well. He presents a myriad of ideas to make what he sees as a strong system function even better. Many of those ideas would require no legislation, because they are grounded in common sense. Here is an example:

From the moment they report for duty, jurors should be treated with the courtesy and respect due to officers of the court. They should not be kept waiting for hours or days on end; with good court administration, they don’t have to be. The one day or one case limitation now becoming popular puts a reasonable limit on the disruption of their lives. Nor should they be pent up in oppressive surroundings. Despite our nation’s prosperity, many courthouses are run-down and overcrowded; judges cannot change that, but can make sure that jurors get a fair allocation of whatever space exists. And every new panel, in every courthouse, should get a prompt and clear orientation on what it’s all about — the court, the flow of civil and criminal cases, the jurors’ duties, the roles of the judges and lawyers. Most jurors arrive on the first day full of hope or at least curiosity. To inspire them at the start is both easy and wise.

Although summoned for jury duty numerous times, I’ve never been seated. Someday, I hope to be. After reading “In the Hands of the People,” I wish it could be in his courtroom. It would be interesting watching Dwyer interact with the individuals who carry out the function he so reveres.

Steve Weinberg is a journalist in Columbia, Mo. He is leading a national study of prosecutorial conduct that will be published by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.