The End of Justice for All

If InSession talking heads had their way Casey Anthony would be the last defendant to be tried before a jury of her peers. A few days ago, one of the TV show’s commentators suggested that it was time for “professional jurors,” as if a trained jury would—of course—have found her guilty, in other words would have made the correct decision.

I once served on a criminal-trial jury. Before that experience I would likely have opted for a bench trial if I ever got in trouble with the law. I thought my fellow citizens would operate irrationally and not be capable of giving me the benefit of reasonable doubt. I thought a better-educated judge would be more likely to understand that I was not guilty.

Boy, was I wrong! The judge in the case I heard was a bigoted, illogical, autocrat. My jury peers were all thoughtful people who wanted to give the defendant every break they could, because it was so obvious that the judge and the prosecutors were not interested in justice.

The assumption is that a professional juror would be a sort of mini-lawyer. What a horror!

Professional Jurors

Recently in Great Britain proposals for abolishing jury trials or at least for professional jurors have been trotted out, and now, I guess, we’re going to have endure the same debate here. Proponents in the U. S., though, will have to cope with a little stumbling block called the Bill of Rights—something they don’t have in Great Britain, as you know if you know anything about the American Revolution.

British courts operate differently from American courts. I have read that jurors are summoned to hear more than one case over a certain period of time, such as two weeks. Jury verdicts need not be unanimous, even in murder cases, but neither is there a death penalty in Britain. (Because of Google’s obnoxious way of trying to search for Britney Spears every time I begin a British search string, I’m afraid I can’t give you a link for further information.)

What is “a professional juror”? In Britain the idea is to call jurors from the general public, train them, and pay them well to sit in judgment on numerous jury panels for an extended period of time. As I understand it, the idea is not to have people whose sole profession is juror.

The question is: What sort of training would make a “good juror”? Some types of training would be helpful to jurors, but other types of training would only be helpful to judges and prosecutors.

Juror Training

As a former criminal-trial juror I would have found helpful training in the role of the foreperson, selecting a foreperson, deliberation, consensus building, eliciting discussion from reticent participants, understanding the jury instructions, and understanding the charges and the elements of a crime. I suspect some jurors would also benefit from a quick tutorial on the Bill of Rights.

When I served, the only training we were given was a ten-minute video delivered to the prospective jury pool. It told us how jury panels would be called by number at random, what to do if our number was called, what to do if our number wasn’t called, and how much we would be paid per day. Nothing else.

Once we were interviewed by the judge, she gave us some simple instructions: don’t talk about the case, follow her instructions, that she would read the indictment but we would never see it or hear it again, that we could take notes but must leave them in the deliberation room, and that we were about to be sworn in.

But there were a number of instructions and a lot of training that I would have strongly disliked if the judge had tried to deliver it to me: training in interpreting CSI evidence, interpreting testimony, or legal terminology, especially the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” which I am eminently better qualified to interpret than any lawyer in any courtroom in this land.

Any effort to turn jurors into amateur lawyers and judges like that would be a disaster.

The real problem with professional jurors, it seems to me, is that a professional isn’t a true peer of the ordinary citizen, at least not in the court system, which is run by lawyers. The reason the institution of the jury arose in the first place, more than two millennia ago, was to provide a check on political and legal institutions so they could not arbitrarily take away the rights and property of ordinary citizens.

Jury Reform

The American Bar Association has a long-standing Commission on the American Jury Project, which has published a number of recommendations for jury reform. Unfortunately, no one has suggested judicial or prosecutorial reforms as well. And if you listen to the lawyers commenting on the Casey Anthony verdict you know that none of them think their profession needs any tweaking, let alone reform.

I have a huge problem with the current, highly politicized judiciary and state’s attorneys offices. Theoretically, the citizenry elects judges and state’s attorneys, but in many jurisdictions the judicial system is so large that even the most-informed of voters can’t possibly know enough about candidates for judgeships. Of course, the county state’s attorney is subject to a great deal of public scrutiny, but not the assistant state’s attorneys, who are more numerous than judges and who are all appointed and hired by the political state’s attorney.

Many judges seek higher office. Every state’s attorney I’ve ever heard of seeks higher office. As a consequence, it is in their best interests to prosecute high-profile defendants to the maximum extent of the law and to adjudicate high-profile cases and sentence convicted defendants to the max.

With the advent of live broadcasts from the courtroom, more and more trials of non-high-profile defendants are going to become circuses. It won’t take jurors long to figure out that if they find a high-profile defendant like Casey Anthony not guilty, they will be the ones who pay with their lives—either literally from stalkers or figuratively in that they will lose their jobs, alienate their friends, and worse.

The Casey Anthony jury did effect justice. They did not ignore any of the judge’s instructions in finding her not guilty. They did not “speculate,” despite what InSession says—what they did was understand the difference between speculation and proof; in deliberations when one of them wandered off into speculation, his or her peers drew the conversation back to what was proved. They did understand the “scientific” evidence—they understood it wasn’t scientific and therefore wasn’t proof.

They understood that in the evidence and testimony the dots were not connected. Yes, there were a lot of dots leading to the child’s remains—there just was no dot labeled Casey Anthony. The only person who claimed to have seen Caylee on June 16, 2008, with her mother was George Anthony, and as the foreman of the jury said, George couldn’t seem to remember important facts and incidents; all he remembered clearly was what everybody was wearing three years ago.