The American system of trial by jury is often touted as the best possible means of dispensing justice. Certainly, that is the message of the short, 659-word column excerpted and linked below. And, certainly, that was once true. But that is no longer the case, and hasn’t been for a very long time.
Please take a few minutes to read it. See if you notice the same things that trouble me.
Judging the potential jury
It is the crazy, beautiful circus at the heart of the American justice system. Listen closely to a criminal trial jury selection and you learn a lot about the burdens, fears, foibles, and remarkable strengths of your fellow citizens. You hear profiles in courage and, from scattered artful dodgers, profiles in convenience. Above all you hear the solemn determination of ordinary folk to be fair.
On Monday morning, the jury pool gathered in Courtroom 18 at the Moakley Courthouse in South Boston, where US District Judge William G. Young presides. Young has an evangelist’s devotion to the jury system. In speeches to new jurors, he always calls it “the most vital expression of direct democracy that exists anywhere on the planet.”
He patiently explained why this pool of about 50 nervous souls were gathered. A man named Calvin Dedrick had been charged with gun and drug crimes. They alone could decide if he was guilty.
Then it was time to cull the group to 12 jurors and two alternates.
How appropriate the author chose the word “cull” to describe the jury selection process because, like culling a herd of animals, people are culled from the jury pool. Of course, with jurors, weakness and bad health have little to do with it. But undesirable traits have everything to do with it. Leading the list of undesirable traits are independent thinking and an unwillingness to do as you are told.
When the judge asked the man if he could find the defendant guilty even though the man believed drugs should be legal, he was really asking the man if he could put aside his conscience and do as he’s told. He’s telling the man his sole job as a juror is to decide if a law was broken. And that is a lie, one judges across the nation tell with daily regularity.
And what kind of person would vote against his own conscience?
While part of a juror’s job is to judge whether a law has been broken, it is also their job to decide if the law is constitutional, reasonable, and being applied in a reasonable manner in the case at hand.
The judge was asking that potential juror if he could find Calvin Dedrick guilty and send him off to prison merely for having a gun and/or for possessing and/or selling drugs, which the juror rightly believed should be legal. The judge was looking for people who could convict despite the fact that all laws restricting possession of firearms and of possessing and selling drugs are clearly unconstitutional. Of course, the judge would not be telling them that. It’s his job to keep the cops and prosecutors working, the prisons full, and himself employed.
“…you could understand Young’s great faith in these randomly selected, moderately vetted citizens.”
Jury pools may be randomly selected today, but Judge Young’s “great faith” in them rests on them being anything but “moderately vetted” as his questioning shows. He wants a jury who can be led, like sheep; a jury that will not question the law or anything else he tells them.
If the jury’s only job was truly to decide whether or not a law was broken, we would not even need a jury. A computer could do it.
“Our whole moral authority depends on the people we’re bringing up here,” Young said. In Courtroom 18, that authority was quite sound.
Judge Young was correct. A court’s moral authority does depend on the people they select. And once, that moral authority was sound. No longer. Juries packed with people who are willing to convict despite their personal beliefs are not juries at all. They’re human robots. And they are not dispensing justice.
In my courtroom, were I ever to sit in Judge Young’s chair, potential jurors would be asked
1) Do you in any way know or are you in any way related to any of the parties involved in this case?
Then I’d excuse those with long-standing vacation plans, health issues, etc.
Then twelve would be chosen at random as jurors and two as alternates.
Then we’d have some real justice.
What do you think?
Am I crazy? Do we need and want judges to “cull” jurors who are independent thinkers?
How would you run a courtroom?