The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers has been a foundational right in Western legal tradition for many centuries, and is present both in English Common Law and the United States Constitution. Americans are raised to believe in the iconic (and stereotypical) image of twelve ordinary, reasonably intelligent citizens taking their duty seriously and returning a fair and impartial verdict. We persist in the delusion that twelve individuals of no particular training or experience will interpret and apply the law better than an individual who has spent his life being educated and trained to do just that. This is, I suppose, a byproduct of our narcissistic belief in the “wisdom of the common man.”
12 Angry Men - The 1957 classic that helped create the fantasy jury stereotype.
The reality is that what we end up with, more often than not, are twelve people selected not on the basis of their qualification to stand in judgement of a particular case, but precisely for their lack of qualification and knowledge about the central issues of the case at hand. For example, as potential jurors are being screened by the attorneys, if a citizen admits to being an expert in case-law regarding the key elements of the trial, he or she will be quickly dismissed. On the other hand, should a potential juror admit to being so indifferent to legal issues as to be unaware of even the illegality of the charges against the defendant, this person is considered an excellent candidate for the jury. The more serious the case, the more vigorous will be the search for the perfect juror.
Who is the perfect juror? Lawyers search for jurors who are so dimly aware of, and participate so infrequently in, their society that they have never come into contact with anything that might have provided them with information that they might use to form an intelligent and informed decision. This is because the attorneys want the jurors to only be conscious of information provided to them in court. A perfect juror, in their eyes, is a blank slate who can be effectively swayed by the words of lawyers. It makes no difference that adults who are “blank slates” are in this condition for a reason. So, by the process of negative selection, we arrive at a jury that is populated with individuals who are the least likely to employ complicated, nuanced reasoning when presented with evidence in court.
Having a jury of simple folk may have been workable in an age where the Cotton Gin represented the height of ingenuity, but is simply inadequate in modern times. Much of the physical evidence that jurors are expected to interpret today is highly technical, and many of the terms that will eventually decide guilt or innocence have definitions with multiple layers that require a depth of understanding to apply in real life. If the jury, during deliberations, recognizes this dilemma and asks for clarification or explanation of terms, they are usually told that this assistance would be inappropriate. This leaves them to grope about for a verdict with the same utter ignorance with which they first came to the courtroom. Confused jurors tend to ignore evidence, which favors the defendant (i.e., the O.J. Simpson jury).
The Simpson Jury (sketch by Bill Robles) - The forgettable 1995 reality show that demonstrated one of the major failings of the modern jury system.
Sometimes, jurors attempt to overcome their ignorance by educating themselves on the issues, but even this genuine search for truth is not allowed. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, this new concern about jurors using the internet to gain access to information not presented during the trial is examined. Judges, lawyers and legal experts wring their hands over cases of jurors doing “research” on the case as they attempt to reach a fair verdict. Remember, the perfect juror is clueless and remains completely dependent on their case’s lawyers for information. Curiosity, even in a quest for justice, is not permitted.
Another problem presented by the existence of advanced technology is what legal experts call “The CSI Effect.” This refers to the often unattainable expectations that many jurors have about the quality and breadth of forensic evidence in criminal cases. Many times, these “blank slates” sole knowledge of the judicial system comes from watching television programs where every crime leaves plenty of damning physical evidence, evidence that is scientifically conclusive, indisputable and easily understood by laymen. When prosecutors fail to present evidence that meets these unrealistic expectations, jurors assume that their case is weak and acquit the defendant.
Television and the media in general are responsible for another problem with juries: the celebrity juror syndrome. In high-profile trials, jurors may be oblivious to practical information that they could use to render an intelligent verdict, but they are very aware of the presence of cameras and reporters. Realizing that their willingness to participate in the media frenzy could give them their “fifteen minutes” of fame, some jurors might begin to weigh the relative value of a particular outcome to their quest for celebrity.
Up to this point, I have been addressing criminal cases only, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention civil juries. We have all read about outrageous monetary penalties levied by juries as the result of lawsuits, and perhaps wondered how such a figure might have been arrived at. This exposes another failure of the jury system: human emotion. In our stereotypical jury, emotion plays no role whatsoever in the verdict; only the evidence and the law are considered. In the real world, when witnesses are hurting, and when testimony is riveting and heartbreaking, juries respond favorably. Once you’ve seen the tears and heard the story, it becomes comparatively easy to punish the cold, impersonal corporation by giving away their money. It also makes you feel good, sort of like Robin Hood. Who wouldn’t want to be Robin Hood?
Having weighed the evidence myself, I am prepared to overturn the dysfunctional jury system and relegate it to the annals of history. I realize, though, that to do this, laws, and sometimes constitutions, would have to be rewritten. Since legislatures are dominated by elected lawyers and lobbyist lawyers, I’m also smart enough to realize that it will never happen. So it goes.