May 19, 2016

Defense of the jury system

Lady Justice and a jury
           Juries are not perfect, but if I were on trial, I would rather have a group of biased strangers, who must reach a unanimous decision (at least in federal court) within the bounds set by a judicial referee, ultimately decide my fate than have one judicial referee call all the shots.
Juries are not as unpredictable as the news media often make them seem. According to a survey of 30 years of jury studies, “the jury system is healthy.”[1] "Quite a bit of their decision is determined by the case that the lawyers present to them. . . . [W]hat seems like a wild card, in fact, follows rules. The strength of the evidence in the case will give you a good sense about what a jury is going to do."[2]
Juries take parties’ fates out of the hands of just one human judge. “The strength of the jury is a diversity in decision making, which makes for a very robust process.”[3] Additionally, juries serve “many purposes and functions that go beyond the finding of facts in any one particular case."[4] For example, they may awaken a deeper sense of civic duty in the individual jurors, awaken them to a better understanding of the law in their jurisdiction, or instill in them respect for the judicial system.
However, the jury system is not without its flaws. Even those who claim the system is “healthy” have their reservations: “It's not clear that juries are the best way to decide to impose the death penalty, because of an inherent flaw in the system. People who oppose the death penalty are not allowed on capital juries.”[5] However, this limitation on jurors is not entirely illogical. Jurors are there to uphold the law and if they do not support the law, then they really have no place as an arbitrator of the law.[6] Moreover, judges have commented that jury bias in itself is not necessarily fatal to justice:
All jurors come to Jury service with certain biases and prejudices . . . Our system envisions these flawed individuals since no juror comes to jury service devoid of these leanings. The history of the jury system shows us that these flawed individuals can set aside these flaws and reach verdicts which are just and fair.[7]

            Others have been more cynical of the jury system:

Not long ago, the right to trial by jury was held to be so "justly dear to the American people," that regardless of "whether guaranteed by the Constitution or provided by statute, it should be jealously guarded by the courts." That is no longer the case.[8]

In doing so, they have claimed “lawyer manipulation” of juries through jury selection can stack the deck in favor of a result “completely inconsistent with the case itself.”[9] This challenge is weak. The adversarial system makes it highly unlikely any one side can stack the deck: the attorneys on the other side are trying to do the exact same thing. Further, even if one could theoretically hand-pick a jury, do you really think anyone can become so competent of human psychology to conclusively know which way any other individual, whom he or she has only known for a matter of moments via a survey of questions, will vote on a matter? Personally, I doubt it. People are difficult to throw in predictable personality boxes.
But critics have not stopped there; they have also complained of juries being “costly and time consuming.”[10] While that may be true, I am okay with paying the price tag of justice (or at least what appears to be the best semblance of justice humanly attainable).




[1] Susan S. Lang, Judging the jury: Does the American jury system work?, Cornell Chronicle (Sep. 9, 2008), http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2008/09/judging-jury-does-american-jury-system-work.
[2] Id. (quoting Valerie Hans, author of American Juries: The Verdict).
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. (citing Hans).
[6] See Waterman v. State, 822 So. 2d 1030, 1033 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002) (“It is presumed that jurors follow the instructions of the court. . . . If the presumption were otherwise, it would mean our jury system was fatally flawed.”).
[7] Wright v. Ctl Distrib., 679 So. 2d 1233, 1234 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2d Dist. 1996) (quoting the lower court trial judge).
[8] Matthew Forbes, Comment, Juries and Jurors: Juries on Trial: Constitutional Right Versus Judicial Burden: An Analysis of Jury Effectiveness and Alternative Methods for Deciding Cases, 48 Okla. L. Rev. 563, 564–65 (1995).
[9] Id.
[10] Id.

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