Time Spent in the Jury Box

Utah recently witnessed the Martin MacNeill murder trial, which concluded with a jury verdict of guilty, and MacNeill now awaits sentencing. Last summer’s Zimmerman/Martin trial in Florida created a firestorm over the jury’s not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman. In both cases, jurists, who were peers of the accused, gave the verdicts as their unanimous best judgment.

It is to our benefit to have those who are like us hear evidence in an open courtroom if we should be accused of a crime. They judge our actions and declare a conclusion; a critical protection available in few nations. The duty to judge the accused is at the core of our rights, and it puts justice in our citizen-hands, where it belongs. As jurists, we protect our fellows from false accusations, or hold them responsible if they err. If any entity—individual, group, or government—can falsely accuse us and make that accusation stick, we are at the mercy of injustice.

Why do we want a jury system? It boosts our national character. When judges, attorneys, and witnesses know they will face a citizen jury, the system stays honest. In culture-speak, our jury trials say we respect the individual, intend to do right by him, and insist on truth. Unless our national personality commits to do right, the freedoms in the Constitution would be destructive.

Because of juries, we are fair to others. We give the other guy an honest shake because we know that life does funny things, and someday it may be us or ours in the courtroom.

The jury system demands responsibility for our freedoms. We must help make it happen—shed our selfishness and work for the justice we relish. The author of Democracy In America, Alexis de Toqueville, said that the American jury system ”rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society”. He believed the greatest benefit to the jury system is to “increase the natural intelligence of (the) people”; that it is a “public school, ever open, in which every juror learns his rights…(and) becomes acquainted with the laws”. He thought ”the practical intelligence and political good sense of the Americans” was due in large part to our jury system.

One of our original constitutional freedoms related to juries has been lost. Initially, jurors could also decide if a law was correct in a particular situation. Because trials were local, jurors knew the customs, practices and standards of their area. If they believed a law was too harsh or inappropriate in the current circumstance, they could temporarily set it aside. The value of this right is obvious in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. The punishment was far too harsh for the crime committed, making the law unfair in that situation. American juries originally had the freedom to make a needed adjustment, but that right has been lost through court rulings. Judges now give iron-clad instructions to jurors and they must follow those directions. The loss of this adjustment power weakened our right to justice.

Locally, 95% of those called for jury duty respond, according to Judge Lynn Davis of the Fourth District Court. Other areas are not so responsible; in many US cities, only 50% appear as requested. Judge Davis’s letter of thanks to those who complete jury service recaps the strengths of the jury system: “You diligently sought the truth, carefully weighed the evidence, and you served as the collective conscience of the community.”

When there’s a just system for handling accusations, residents are safe before the law. As Justice William O. Douglas said in “Anatomy of Liberty, “It (a jury) is the one government agency that has no ambition. It is as human as the people who make it up. It…takes the sharp edges off the law…” Our time spent in the jury box invites citizen protection.