Fixing the jury system

Reply Tue 6 Apr, 2004 09:20 am
Fixing the jury system[/u]
Thomas Sowell
April 6, 2004

Now that the case against Tyco executives has ended in a mistrial, there is much outcry against the juror whose holdout will cause a $12 million trial to have to be done all over again from scratch. Whether that juror was principled or just pig-headed, this trial reveals something more fundamentally wrong with our jury system -- and with the media.

It was not some trashy supermarket scandal sheet, but the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, that published the juror's name. The Associated Press published her photograph. It was not this juror's holdout itself which ultimately led to a mistrial but a report of her receiving a phone call and a letter that were seen as putting pressure on her.

The jury was described as being minutes away from reaching a verdict when the judge called a mistrial. But the judge was right. There was no way of knowing whether the holdout juror was now agreeing with the other 11 because of an outside threat.

The media who are condemning this woman ought to be condemning themselves for their own irresponsibility, which is not only costing taxpayers millions of dollars but can corrupt the whole system of justice. The New York Times pioneered such irresponsibility years ago, when it published the name of the foreman of the jury that acquitted the policemen who beat Rodney King.

Newspapers have every right to complain about any jury verdict they don't like. But that is wholly different from putting jurors in personal jeopardy when they don't vote the way the media wants them to vote. Do we want future jurors to decide cases on the basis of facts or on the basis of fear?

In the Diallo police shooting case four years ago, a witness whose testimony tended to support the defense was forced by the prosecutor to reveal in open court not only his name and address, but also the very apartment in which he and his family lived.

In an atmosphere where mobs were being whipped up outside the courthouse by demagogues, this was a shot across the bow of any other potential witness who might testify in ways that the prosecutor did not like.

Do you wonder why witnesses do not come forward? When they do come forward, are they supposed to testify to what they actually saw or to what they think will keep them out of trouble?

If we are serious about wanting justice in our courts, then we need to start getting serious about preventing witnesses and jurors from being intimidated. We might start by getting all cameras out of the courtroom.

There is no reason why the identity of the jurors has to be known by the media. The whole jury could be put behind one-way glass, so that they can see the proceedings but cannot be seen. It can be made a felony to publish their names.

The requirement for unanimous jury verdicts is long overdue for reconsideration. One pig-headed juror can cause not only a costly mistrial but also verdicts that do not reflect the seriousness of the crime.

People who commit murder should be convicted of murder, not manslaughter because one juror is too squeamish to risk the death penalty. There are too many people around who think they have "a right to my own opinion," as they put it, which translates as: "My mind is made up, so don't confuse me with the facts."

The time is also long overdue to reconsider the current practice of having jurors selected with vetoes by the lawyers in the case. When prospective jurors are given 30-page questionnaires made up by lawyers, asking intrusive questions about their personal lives and beliefs, the situation has gotten completely out of hand.

Courts do not exist for the sake of lawyers but for the sake of the public. Allowing lawyers to fish around in hopes of finding one mushhead who can save their client makes no sense.

Anonymous jurors, selected by lottery, and not restricted to unanimous verdicts, should be good enough for anyone in an inherently imperfect world. In such a system, cranks and ideologues would not have nearly the leverage that they do now.

There could also be professional jurors, trained in the law, for cases involving complex legal issues. That would cost more -- or rather, the cost would be visible in money, rather than hidden in the corruption of the legal system, the way it is now.

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Reply Tue 6 Apr, 2004 09:25 am
Wow. That shows me how ignorant I am of the American Jury system. Thanks for posting an interesting article, Fedral!
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Reply Thu 8 Apr, 2004 06:49 pm
Who was it that said "It is far better to let 10 guilty men go free than to risk one innocent one being incarcirated."

I stand by that quote Federal

And I disagree with this article as a result. Not with the holding the media more accountable part, I agree with that. But with the elimination of the unianimous requirement.

If anything, the Martha Stewart case should illustrate how an overzealous prosecution combined with a media circus and ignorant jurors can incarcirate an innocent person.

Had there been a single juror who managed to see through the BS and saw the case for what it was, a witch hunt, this might have been averted.

Similarly, the questionaires lawyers make jurors fill out is precisely to find and rule out jurors that might oppose the death penalty on principle and thus lead to a mistrail.
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Reply Thu 8 Apr, 2004 07:20 pm
Centroles wrote:
And I disagree with this article as a result. Not with the holding the media more accountable part, I agree with that. But with the elimination of the unianimous requirement.

Agreed! It's SUPPOSED to be hard to convince 12 jurrors. The concept in a criminal trial is "beyond all reasonable doubt". Changing to a system that only needs some of the jurors to be convinced lowers the standard across the board to "beyond some reasonable doubts".

That's an unacceptable standard if we're going to lock a person away IMO.
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Reply Fri 9 Apr, 2004 08:37 am
Centroles, fishin': I wouldn't be so quick to reject the author's suggestion regarding the elimination of unanimous jury verdicts. After all, Sowell also recommends eliminating peremptory challenges during jury selection. I can imagine that, with a jury chosen from the first twelve people in the venire (jury pool) not otherwise disqualified, the elimination of unanimity may be a useful corrective.
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Reply Fri 9 Apr, 2004 08:54 am
I could accept some limited usefulnees of it in cases where a prison term isn't a sentencing option but beyond that I think it's a silly idea.

"Anonymous jurors, selected by lottery, and not restricted to unanimous verdicts, should be good enough for anyone in an inherently imperfect world."

The idea of progression and change is to make things better isn't it? Instead of reworking the system to simply make the imperfect easier I'd rather work towards finding a way to reduce the impact of (or eliminate) the imperfections.
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Reply Fri 9 Apr, 2004 09:12 am
fishin': Let me put it this way: if we continue to allow peremptory challenges, then I see no reason to get rid of the requirement for unanimity in verdicts. On the other hand, if we eliminate peremptories, then I can see how allowing an 11-1 or 10-2 verdict would be a reasonable corrective.

Peremptories, after all, not only weed out jurors who might be unsympathetic to a party's cause, they can also be used to get rid of people who might pose a threat to deadlock a jury. Without the tool of the peremptory challenge, then, I think it would be reasonable to allow 11-1 or 10-2 verdicts (I'd be unwilling to go below 10-2).
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Reply Thu 15 Apr, 2004 11:40 am
For the longest time in my home state of New Jersey and for a time here in Florida, they used the voters registration rolls to determine who would be summoned for Jury Duty. (In Fla they now use Drivers Licences, not sure about N.J.)

Since I have been registered to vote since the day of my 18 th birthday, I have as a consequence been called for jury duty a total of 17 times ...

I have spent between 1 and 3 days each time I was called, sitting in various rooms in different counties, cities and states waiting to be chosen for the purpose I was summoned.

Keep in mind, I have NEVER tried to get out of Jury Duty, nor have I ever answered any questions on the forms they make you fill out in such a way as to try and disqualify myself from selection.

I look upon Jury Duty as one of the obligations of citizenship, like voting.

In the 17 times I have been called, I have been called to a courtroom once[/u] to be questioned as a potential juror and I was rejected not long thereafter.

I am not 'looking' for a chance to find a person guilty or innocent, I have just been irritated that I have been called so many times for absolutely nothing.

I just want to play my part, not be excluded because I checked the 'wrong' box on a questionnaire.
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