Saturday, July 09, 2011

Yet another spew about juries and verdicts

Since justice isn't a topic I've written much about, I don't mean that this is another spew about it from me, but another in the massive stream of reaction to a recent case that dominated the news.

I did not keep up with the case and haven't clue one about it. This is about being a juror. Already, in this morning's paper, a microcephalic rant appeared from someone with the phrase that we hear, over and over and over and over and over......

"Everybody knows....." A phrase for and by the unthinking and ineducable, a phrase that has shored up a million wrongful accusations, reputation-destructions and wrongful deaths.

That particular proto-hominid insists that "everybody knows" the child was smothered. He obviously has no concept of evidence, proof, legality. And as for understanding that belief and knowledge are not the same thing - I doubt he's capable.

I was on a jury once and it's one of my most miserable memories, and not because it was any life or death matter, but because I was incapable of doing the job, and because the other jurors were too. My faith in the jury system went completely to hell after it.

It was a drunk driving case. We were a jury of six.

I was newly sober and as stupid as the arrogant, crusading, newly sober can possibly be. The other 5 jurors -- all 5 -- were ready to acquit.

I was a shy, follower type. But I was full of self-righteous condemnation of all who weren't as Marvelous, Special and So-oh-oh-ber as Superior Me, and was practically drunk on my rarely-felt power to persuade. I convinced all 5 of them to convict.

No need to tell me how many people drunk drivers kill and how the conviction might have been the wake-up call the accused needed.

No need to tell me that however bad my judgment was, I was judging to the best of my pathetic ability and that was what they chose me to do.

No need to tell me that, to reiterate, I did not volunteer for duty or for the case, but was chosen, coerced by law to do it at every step.

No need to tell me that if the others disagreed, their failure to stand up and say No, I will not convict is on them, not on me.

I get all of that.

The guy could have been guilty, but it was a borderline case with no proof and no real evidence except a timetable of what he ate and drank in the previous few hours. I had no business Saving the World with a conviction that was inadequately supported. Maybe I stumbled into an accurate verdict and maybe the Anthony jury did too, but in both cases it had to be about what was adequately proven, not what was likely or what "felt" right.

I was a crusading jerk, and the other 5 were spineless and uncaring jerks who just wanted a consensus so they could go home. It was a Perfect Storm of Category 5 Jerk, and something desperately needs to change about the jury system.

As I said, I didn't follow the Anthony case and don't feel entitled to any statements like "I think" she did or didn't do it.

But I did learn something in the past, about the huge honking difference between

"most likely,"
"she's a horrible human being"

hard factual evidence
that answers the questions
beyond reasonable doubt.

I have no solution to stupid juries, and I'm not convinced that this was one. The little that has come out sounds like they were conscientious and serious about their legal responsibility. If the system fails, the jury gets blamed and I'd want to stay anonymous too if I'd been on this one. The system failed when I was juror, and I still feel the weight of the responsibility. But I do know juries of carefully chosen morons are too frequent, and that something oughta be done.

I wouldn't call it my "solution," more like my vague thoughts, but I'd like to see much bigger juries, selected more randomly, but from trained -- trained -- people, and verdicts that do not have to be unanimous. Which does not mean convicting on 51% votes. Two-thirds or even 90% to convict could be required.

Or not. Could it be worse than this system? Yeah, my smart readers will probably think of scenarios in which it could, scenarios I haven't even thought of, but my experience instilled in me a horror of the system as it "works" now.


Dann said...

Hi Ruth,

I am appalled at the response to that jury verdict as well. I didn't follow it much, but from what I understand, the prosecution had circumstantial evidence at best.

I think the thing to keep in mind is that our system of justice was established with the idea in mind that it is better to let many guilty persons go free than to let one innocent person be found guilty of a crime they didn't commit. Efforts have continually been made to undermine that objective with the stated objective of putting more criminals in jail.

Yet how many people have been found guilty in such an undermined system? How many death row inmates have been found innocent thanks to the tireless efforts of unpaid volunteers working after the fact?

I'm pretty sure that you understand that perspective.

The power of one juror is immense. All a defendant has to do is convince one juror that their actions were just, and all that remains is a stand of conscience.

As for me, I'll take the unanimous work of a truly random sampling of my fellow citizens over some majority of trained technicians any day of the week. The technicians will have been taught to overlook principles.

My fellow citizens have an innate love of liberty. While they may fail from time to time, their best efforts will exceed all other options over the course of history.


Sherwood Harrington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sherwood Harrington said...

[I so wish comments could be edited on Blogger...]

I agree with Dann on this one, Ruth -- maybe not with exactly the same rationale, but with the same conclusion nonetheless.

I would be very, very leery of a system involving a pool of trained people from which jurors would be selected. Who does the training, and what are their motivations? For that matter, how would the trainers be chosen? I'd far rather have it be as random as it is now.

And I'm on board completely with the idea that it is far better to have a system that leans strongly in the direction of acquittal than one that is objectively "fair". I know that is an affront to all victims of people who have been wrongfully cleared of their crimes, but I think it's a necessary evil if we are to maintain a free society.

[Here's the part I wanted to edit, not just delete:]

FWIW, I don't think you were a jerk at all in the case you describe. I think you made the system work the way it's supposed to.

[Here's what I wanted to change it to:]

Despite that, and FWIW, I don't think you were a jerk at all in the case you describe. I think there's good reason to require unanimity in verdicts in criminal cases, and one of the reasons for that is the ability it gives one or two outnumbered people the opportunity to convince the others, an opportunity they wouldn't have in a majority or even super-majority scheme. I think you made the system work the way it's supposed to.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Thanks guys. It's been a very long time since anyone gave me any new perspectives on this, and you both did.

I always did greatly favor the idea that it's better to let guilty persons go free than to convict the innocent. And, Sherwood, when you put it like that .... it is probably good to give the opinion of an outnumbered juror some real weight. My ongoing bad feeling about my experience does kind of fog my theoretical thinking but i also think that if all of us had had some orientation first, it would tend to work more for justice and not against it, which is what happened on that case.

It wasn't clear what i meant by "trained" (I shouldn't post quickly without lots of revision) and it might sound like i was referring to professional juries.

No, not at all what i meant. More like an orientation session, given to the whole juror pool before selection for cases takes place, in which the basics of the justice system and of "reasonable doubt" were discussed.

There i was, with plenty of college education and schooling during the era in which civics really *was* taught, and i had no idea how to process the given facts as reasonable or less-than-reasonable. I think juries in very serious cases get it and that this is why the Anthony jury did what they did. I really just favor something like that as a routine, not as an option. We got a "You know what to do. Do it and let's go home" thing.