U.S. Jury System Guilty of Complexity

Our Constitutional right to a trial by jury is threatened on an almost daily basis. The threats come, not from criminals, but, rather, from just plain citizens, and from judges, as well as prosecutors who are more intent on winning convictions than ensuring a fair trial to defendants.

Americans too often favor throwing the book at someone accused of a grievous crime -- long before the evidence is in. Wouldn't it be wiser to wait until a person is proven guilty?"

Jumping to Conclusions

Too many citizens jump to conclusions about people accused of crimes. Often those people are guilty, but not always!

Apparently, some people find it difficult to imagine being falsely accused. It shouldn't be: Who hasn't been blamed for some minor infringement, like cheating on a school test, by an accuser who fabricated the story out of whole cloth?

If unjustly accused of a serious infraction, who would not want to be guaranteed a fair trial -- or, be considered innocent until proven guilty or be assured of a trial by one's peers?

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

And would anyone want to be declared guilty of a major crime by a jury unless the judgment were made beyond (a reasonable) doubt ?

The court makes decisions throughout the judicial process -- from the filing of charges to the offering of a plea bargain, from jury selection to the conduct of the trial itself and, upon conviction, in the sentencing phase.

In a recent fraud trial, for instance, a jury in the midst of deliberations had to start over after a judge replaced one juror with an alternate after other jurors accused the ousted juror of obstructing deliberations.

The jury subsequently found former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington guilty of fraud, and sentencing (was) scheduled for Nov. 10.

The Unbiased Facts

Under our system, only the jury (not the judge, nor the prosecutor, nor the defense attorney) is in a position to decide a case on its merits (Only the jurors hear the unbiased facts.)

Jurors may disagree with one another, but they should not be allowed to taint another juror for any reason.

In the movie "12 Angry Men" a single juror, played by Henry Fonda, withstood the prejudices and pressure of the other 11 jurors to eventually swing the verdict from guilty to not guilty. In the real world, I'm sure, that rarely happens! Most such defendants would be found guilty.

In connection with the fraud trial, the dismissed juror said the other jurors were railroading her into voting for a guilty verdict. No juror should be removed on that basis; in fact, such arguments should not be entertained at all. The jurors alone -- all of them -- should decide the case.

If a juror is mentally deficient, that is something that should be determined before the juror is seated; after the trial is under way, accusations of incompetency are too easily leveled against jurors who disagree with the majority.

Judicial Interference

Judges interfere in such cases because they have nearly unfettered powers they derive from a legion of officials and citizens who fear offending them.

If we continue to tamper with the jury system the way we've been doing, we could put the whole justice system in jeopardy.

The system's unfair and too complex! Why not pick jurors by lot from among the jury pool -- and let them do their job?

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on Sept. 20, 1997. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages. To view my HubPages Profile Click Here

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Comments 20 comments

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

Anyone can be unjustly accused at any time. I agree that a jury needs to be left alone to do its job and held accountable to do its job. Meanwhile, others jumping to conclusions of soneone's guilt need to mature in reasoning and judgment and/or put a lid on the desire for sensationalism and wishing to see harm come to others - Schadenfreude, I think it's called.

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Once while trying, with several others, to do a good deed by helping a woman unlock the trunk of her car I was unjustly accused of "forcing" the key. To me, it was a shattering experience. I can't even imagine being accused unjustly of a serious violation. Assuming the guilt of an innocent person is, I believe, one of the worst things one can do to the dignity of an individual. I very much appreciate your comments, Patty.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

I feel bad for you, William. I was once accused of taking a bottle of wine from a friend's restaurant. Being younger then, I almost picked up another bottle and threw it at the accuser; however, the friend discovered that evening that a waitress was taking wine daily and fired her. I did not receive an apology because "all women are dishonest." The friendship endly most quickly at that comment.

Another time, I was asked to use a scanning machine (for the first time) to scan answer cards for a small set of tests. The directions were to feed each card in and to write the number that appeared onto the card. I did so and was accused of purposely misgrading the tests. However, the accusing co-worker took one of the cards, scanned it three times and received three different answers. The old machine had never been cleaned and was also broken. I did not receive an apology, but within a year, the entire staff was laid off in budget cuts, except for me.

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

As someone once said, Patty. I feel your pain. These are shattering experiences. It's difficult to understand people who are willing to make accusations in total ingnorance of the facts and with no consideration whatsoever for the innocent victim. But sometimes, as a friend used to say, "What goes around comes around."

Froggy213 profile image

Froggy213 8 years ago from On A Mountain In Puerto Rico

I believe the whole jury system needs to be looked at very hard; Here in this town they give a juror $8 a day--you miss work--most want out quick so they go along with the others.

The system is tainted and needs an overhaul in my opinion.

Also,I believe anyone caught of knowingly lying to get another in trouble should have charges brought against them.

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thanks, Froggy 213. I agree entirely. A thorough investigation of the jury system is long overdue. It should include jury selection procedures and judges' instructions to the jury as well as the role of prosecutors in recommending charges and plea bargaining.

donnaleemason profile image

donnaleemason 8 years ago from North Dakota, USA

I agree with Froggy, they want out as quickly as possible.


Jondolar 8 years ago

Yes, I've had a personal experience with the judicial system, but it was from a very different perspective. It wasn't as a participant on a jury, but as one who's brother was killed by a 17 year old gang member in 1990. There was also another man with my brother who was also killed by the same individual. So, the D.A. was prosecuting on two counts of first degree, but the assailant's lawyer was able to plea-bargain with the court to two counts of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 17 years of prison. Of course, he's out now, but my brother will never return to enjoy life. I registered with the state's Victim Advocates Notification program so that I'd be notified when this guy got out of prison, but was shocked to discover when calling to check on the date, that he'd already been released to a work program a year earlier only 8 miles from my home. The D.O.C. didn't even call me to apologize for screwing up either. I don't claim to understand it all, but I can tell you that, in my opinion, our justice system is NOT working the way it should.

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, Donna, for your comment. Jurors come in all stripes, but from my experience many just want to get back home or back to their jobs as quickly as possible. They didn't want to be there in the first place. Peronally, I'm just a little suspicious of the motives of those few who are anxious to be seated on a jury.

I'm very sorry, Jondolar, for your sad experience. Unfortunately, such plea bargaining is the rule rather than the exception. I think it was initailly designed to be the other way around. This country now has some 2,000,000 men and women in prison, which is unacceptable. My column addressed, with limited space, only the jury system, but the prison system, the movement toward privatization, the policies of parole boards and prison administration and the handling of prisoners would take at least a full length book to cover adequately. There's no question about it, the justice system is broken. It needs to be fixed.

compu-smart profile image

compu-smart 8 years ago from London UK

William..I wish i had the time to email this article to every courthouse, politician and newspapers in the land to help highlight the jury problems that need to be completely overhauled!!

I believe they know the system is archaic yet they cannot be bothered to change, instead they choose to stick with the devil they know which is a shame!

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

That's very kind of you, compu-smart. You're right. They know the system needs help, but, as usual, nobody wants to muddy the waters by saying so openly.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

This is a wonderful thread of disucssion. I agree with an overhaul being overdue.

I was fortunate enough to study some criminology under Simon Dinitz and Walter Wreckless of the original foundation of the Chicago School of Criminiology. They had good ideas abot improving the judicial system, notably the penal system, but this runaway plea bargaining undermines justice and all of their efforts of many decades.

Earle Stanley Gardner campaigned against the "professional witnesses" of the earlier 20th century that were paid to testify a particular way on the stand in order to sway a jury. I don't know how that phenomenon lasted so long. It probably is still active to some extent today.  Things like this must be corrected.

What was the film in which John Cusack's character pretended he did not want to serve on jury in order to ensure that the judge forced him to do so, allowing him to influence the others? I liked 12 Angry Men very much as well.

sandra rinck 8 years ago

I was accused once of trying to drown a drunk lady in a pool and stealing her Whisky, as a result I was demoted at work, even when the evidence was justified that I did nothing of the sort, I was still penelized at work and demoted. There excuse was..."because this lady made a spectical of you, we feel it is necessary to show that we took action againts you". Even after that this lady continued to make alligations againts co-works, and tried to sue the company. As a result she was removed from the property and restrained, but I still never received an appology or a reinstatment.

12 Angry Men is one of my favorite movies.

Froggy213 profile image

Froggy213 8 years ago from On A Mountain In Puerto Rico

William, I live here in Missouri in area code 417--Methamphetamine runs wild here and the system has broken down so bad that the "big" dealers tell on the "small" frys and walk free to keep doing their dealings. There is rampant favortism for certain individuals with family in certain positions in this town. I believe that it is a good possibility that the person who harmed my grandson was a "snitch" and still walks free.At this point all I can do is raise my voice in protest.Many of my family members worry because it seems we have no police protection anymore.Corruption abounds!

Sorry,I got a bit off subject,but it is still a part of the system.

This was a very good hub--I commend you!

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thanks, Patty. It's good to hear that there are some people calling for reform. It must have been interesting to study criminology. Cusack was in "Runaway Jury," could that be the one? I read John Grisham's book years ago, but I didn't see the movie. It's been a long time since I read Garner, but I always enjoyed his books. I'm glad to know he spoke out against professional witnesses.

Hi, Sandra. There's probably nothing more shattering than the kind of injustice you suffered. That's why so many of my columns deal with this subject. Unfortunately, this kind of thing will always be with us. It's important that we do all we can to make sure that the justice system treats the accused fairly. Once accused, it's difficult, if not impossible, to undo the harm.

I appreciate your comments, Froggy213. My feeling is that your town in Missouri is, unfortunately, only one of many in the United States that are out of control. I fear there are many stories like yours in the "Naked City." If others raise their voices in protest with you, maybe it will lead to some improvement. We can only hope.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

Yes, Runaway Jury is the one; very interesting. You probably know that Gardner along with Esquire Magazine in the 1950s began campaigning for vindication of wrongfully imprisoned felons in The Court of Last Resort series of articles, later compiled in book form. Today, some college law, criminology, and social work classes adopt such a case to bring forth new evidence and reopen them - especially DNA evidence now.  I wish I could have met Gardner, but today Donald T. Lunde, M.A., M.D. (about whom I wrote) has nearly perfected all the programs of Gardner. There is hope!.  

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

The Court of Last Resort was a great contribution to the cause as is the college work that going on. I appreciate the added information. My fingers remained crossed in the hope of further progress.

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Fantastic Article. The first step of reformation must be in education and then the media. In fact this article is a great first step. thank you

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 3 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, Ericdierker, for your welcome comment. Public education and objective media are two of the most important elements of a fair and just jury system. Both have been under unrelenting political attack that constitute a serious threat to our justice system.

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Mr. Torpey, this is a real and ever present need in our society. Some folk, will not judge another, and I get that. But I doubt they have ever been sitting there spoiling there britches that someone stood up and judged rightfully.

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