The Jury System: Cornerstone of American Jurisprudence
After nearly a quarter of a century in this country, I was selected for Jury Duty. I reported to the Franklin County Common Pleas Court this past Monday for what I hoped would be an inimitable and edifying privilege to experience the inner workings of a foundational element of American jurisprudence.
I must say that, like most people, I was quite apprehensive when I received the notice; didn't immediately feel spontaneously receptive to the civic impulse or the opportunity for self-enlightenment. To the contrary, I thought the timing was just wrong; I assumed that I could neither afford to be gone from work for so long nor stomach the disruption that participation would force upon my other daily routines.
Additionally, I frankly thought the idea of being sequestered in some begrimed room with total strangers or bothered with any of their unobtrusive efforts at “small talk” utterly unappealing.
But to my amazement, I did find the first floor jury quarters of the county’s multi-million dollar, ultra-modern court house in downtown Columbus to be quite plush and well-appointed with expansive amenities and fresh electronic gadgetry.
The facility security staff, jury employees and other court personnel, including judges and magistrates, were really nice in a way that was mildly effusive but not overbearing.
As the first day wore on, I even found the other dozens of potential jurors assembled in the large reception hall and the entire experience to be nothing like I initially feared; most seemed very much like me, cautiously optimistic.
Since a significant portion of the first day was spent waiting to be called up for a case, I had ample time to ruminate over the origins and significance of the Jury System in this country.
It quickly dawned on me that, realistically-speaking, not counting elections, jury service is the only opportunity that average American citizens have to impact the political-judicial system in a very personal, immediate and direct way without reliance on some secondary/tertiary intervening entity. It is justice at the most elemental, retail level.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, I finally got “the call” at about 1:45---I was actually part of the fourth batch of 24 prospective jurors scurrying up one of many flight elevators to the 6th floor!
When we got to the hallway leading into the court room, the bailiff was waiting, roster in hand. He quickly introduced himself, gave his perfunctory welcome spill and proceeded to match us in a single file into the court room.
Once seated, the judge, again, took time to welcome us and introduce himself, his staff (bailiff and stenographer), the assistant prosecutor representing the State of Ohio in the case and the defendant’s legal counsel before launching into a lengthy speech about both the process and his expectations.
Next, came what is perhaps the most critical part of the jury selection process; the “Voir Dire;” which literally means “speak the truth.” This is the time set aside for the Judge and attorneys representing both sides to ask a series of questions, sometimes inspired or colored by a review of the detailed questionnaire that each prospective juror completed upon arrival, to determine if a juror is acceptable for the case being tried; based upon each individual’s perceived ability to be fair, neutral and/or impartial.
Though there were 24 of us at the onset, per Ohio law, given that the case at hand was of a criminal nature, 12 of us, plus two alternates, will make the cut. (Civil cases require eight jurors and two alternates).
The attorneys took turns querying the 24 assembled prospective jurors sequentially and shot-gun style. After nearly three hours, the judge had his bailiff escort us all out of the court room to enable what I later realized was the traditional behind-the-scenes jockeying or wrangling between the prosecution and defense over the final list of jurors.
About a half hour passed before the bailiff reappeared to bring us back into the court room. The judge proceeded to announce and individually sit each juror (I was selected as juror number 11). He thanked the 10 remaining prospective jurors and returned them to the jury pool downstairs on the first floor.
Without much fanfare, the trial quickly got underway; the judge formally introduced the parties to the case and invited the prosecutor and the defending attorney to issue their opening statements.
Over the next two and half days, starting with the prosecutor, the lawyers called their witnesses to assume the stand and share their testimonies and be cross-examined. By mid day Wednesday, both sides had “rested.”
We were now approaching another critical point in the jury trial process: jury deliberations and eventual verdict. But before sending us off to the jury room, the judge spent more than a half hour disseminating a 10-page document of instructions on the deliberation process and crucial matters of law pertinent to the case; he painstakingly went over each paragraph in part to make sure that all’s clearly understood and in part to drive home the import of what we've been tasked with.
At about 3:00 PM on Wednesday, the jury was fast in deliberation in the back jury room. First, we had to select a foreperson; thankfully, a middle-aged man offered to serve in that capacity if no one else was interested.
Since there were really two distinct parts to our mandate (the prosecution’s responsibility to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly caused his victim’s serious physical injuries and the defense’s duty to demonstrate by the preponderance of evidence that the defendant acted in defense of another), the foreman suggested we tackle them distinctly. Hearing no objections, discussions immediately got underway on the former.
A little more than twenty-five minutes into the exchanges, things started to rapidly unravel in a way that, for me, was quite concerning for our case but, more importantly, faith-effacing for the jury system itself.
It was easy to see that:
· Many jurors did not grasp and/or appeared disinterested in the definitions provided by the judge regarding the key elements of a guilty finding
· At the risk of sounding condescending, a significant number of the jurors honestly did not have the cognitive ability to comprehend some of the concepts at play
· Much as neither race nor gender was an issue, since both the victim and the defendant in our case were white males in their late twenties, the age distribution of the jurors was a more interceding factor----at least five of the older, retired jurors seemed a bit challenged appreciating some particulars (facts and circumstances) of the case.
· One or two rather vocal jurors who, having made up their minds that the prosecution had proven its case by basically cherry-picking facts from the testimonies, were insisting on a summary vote; they quickly succeeded in getting the other docile, less-sophisticated jurors to go along.
· An initial vote yielded a divided result: 10-2 in favor of a guilty verdict.
· Principally because of the first two bullet points above, the more time spent discussing and seeking to broker a breakthrough, the more frustrated and disconsolate some jurors became.
This was precisely the status of our deliberations when, at approximately 4:45 on Wednesday, one of the jurors disclosed that the night before, drawing from a core fact about our case without disclosing any specifics, he had sought the counsel of one of his nephews. The group then decided to immediately bring this to the attention of the judge.
After a brief review with the attending lawyers, the judge summoned us all back to the court room, declared a mistrial and sent us home.
In closing, from my experience, I am inclined to posit that the jury system, like the right to bear arms, was probably an idea that was logical and quite defensible at its inception. I would even readily concede that to many people, it might understandably conjure up alluring feelings of nostalgia and mysticism. But we certainly don’t have the same society we had two and half centuries ago. While not calling for a total repudiation of the system, particularly given its enduring promise, I think we would be better served in light of current realities (our demography as well as socio-cultural landscape) to institute a few necessary modifications.
Just instructing people to be open-minded and impartial in weighing the facts of a case before handing down judgment is, in my mind, woefully inadequate and demonstrably ineffectual; asking jurors to leave their values and impulses at the door while dispassionately pondering the details of a case is a blundering exercise in futility.
I think one way to better guarantee fairness is to systematically force some balance or equilibrium in the makeup of juries---effect structural changes to ensure that a jury is constituted in a manner that recognizes both the characteristics of the parties to a particular case and the essentials of its immediate jurisdiction.
Additionally, on matters of law, it would be beneficial to have the judge, or another third-party, directly involved as a neutral subject matter expert, to provide guidance on definitional questions around the key elements of law present within a particular case.
I suspect that the foregoing measures could have benefited my group; they would collectively have introduced the decorum and authoritative layer of enlightenment that could have brought us back from the brink---without the judge’s mistrial ruling, we would arguably have had a hung jury.
For the benefit of those who may not already know, although the right of trial by one’s peers was guaranteed by both the 6th and 7th Amendments of the Bill of Rights following the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1791, Jury Duty actually originated more than 600 years prior in England as a way to rein in the king’s power to exact punishment on his subjects. It is traceable to the Magana Carta which in 1215, codified that a freeman could only be deprived of liberty or property except by the lawful judgment of his peers.