Posted by: Ken Brown | May 7, 2009

Justice and Jury Duty

Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24)

This week I participated in my first jury duty; it was a fascinating and enlightening experience. To be honest, I was a little annoyed when I first got the summons. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited by the chance to sit on a trial, but I did not relish the need to sort out work and childcare for up to two weeks (and potentially longer) to do it. So I asked to be excused, but I was denied, and I’m very glad of that.

Our case ended up being pretty straightforward and only lasted two days. A previously convicted felon had acquired services from a contractor, in the value of $1580, and was accused of never intending to pay for them–a First Degree Theft. The only issues really in dispute were the value of the services (there was some question about the quality of the work and the length of time it took) and whether a partial payment had been made. In the end, we did not find the defendant’s testimony credible, but were not confident that the prosecution had proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” that more than $1500 was actually owed (as required for First Degree Theft), so we accepted the lesser charge of Second Degree Theft instead.

I’m confident we made the right decision, but the process raised some questions in my mind about the nature of our justice system as a whole. On the one hand, some aspects of the process impressed me a great deal. The judge in our case was firm but kind and fair, and I’m glad to know that there are people like her trying cases. The lawyers also chose a very good jury (if I do say so myself). Everyone on there was intelligent and responsible, and represented a broad range of ages and social situations–business owners, employees, retirees, a pilot and a member of the military, etc. I think there were probably two or three people from each decade from twenties to sixties, plus at least one juror in his seventies. It was a little less balanced ethnically–all white except one Hispanic man and one Asian woman–but that is pretty much in line with our area’s demographics anyway [Update: Note the the defendant was white as well]. Thankfully we all got along well, and our deliberations were thoughtful and respectful. I don’t know how common that is, but if that is at least the goal, it reflects very well on our justice system.

On the other hand, other aspects of the process concerned me. As a jury, we were not allowed to consider the possible punishments involved if we returned a guilty verdict (we were not even told what those would or could be until after the fact), and were specifically instructed not to consider our own feelings or beliefs about what the law is or should be, but only to apply the judge’s explanation of the law to the facts as presented in court. Further, certain facts were intentionally hidden from us as a jury, and either kept out of court altogether, or barred from the record after the fact (in which cases we were specifically instructed to disregard them). Jurors are prohibited from conducting their own investigations–even looking up terms in a dictionary would have been against the rules!–nor were we allowed to ask questions of the witnesses or lawyers. The latter restriction seems much more significant when you are actually on a jury than when you simply watch trials on TV–there were some pertinent questions that we really wanted asked that the lawyers either did not think of or chose not to bring up.

I understand there are good reasons for letting the judge, rather than the jury, determine what facts, laws and questions are relevant to the case. They don’t want to bias our judgment or allow us to legislate from the jury box, so to speak. And in fact, when we afterward learned some of the facts that were barred from court, they only confirmed our conviction. For instance, we were not told the nature or timing of the defendant’s previous conviction in trial, and only learned of it later, during sentencing. It turned out, the defendnant had been convicted of a broadly similar crime just two months before the incident in question, and had in fact only finished house arrest a week before the crime! No doubt that knoweldge would have made our decision even easier had we known it, but would that have been fair, or would it have only biased our judgment?

Still, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable at the lawyers’ power to control what “facts” the jury has access to (most of which, at least in this trial, we had to sift from witness testimony). The judge can bar evidence from court, but only the lawyers can introduce it, and that opens up a great deal of room for abuse if one side is considerably better prepared than the other. Such was not the case in our trial–to be honest, we were not terribly impressed with the preparation by either side–but with such a system, it can be no surprise that we get cases like the O.J. Simpson trial from time to time, and perhaps quite often. There seems to me to be something fundamentally flawed about putting a person’s fate in the hands of twelve people whose only access to the “facts” is through lawyers, who alone get to determine what evidence to submit, what witnesses to call, what questions to ask them and much else. No doubt there are many worse alternatives to this kind of trial by jury but still, this is hardly an ideal means of seeking justice.

There is also the larger issue of who goes to court in the first place. We, as the jury, were required to concern ourselves only with determining how the law as explained by the judge, pertained to the facts as presented in court, and we felt we had no choice but to rule as we did.  We were, and I remain, sure “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defendant was guilty according to those requirements (and in my opinion the punishment that the judge went on to apply was entirely fair). Still, I cannot help but note the deeper unfairness of the system. People regularly refuse to pay their bills for all sorts of services–at the business I manage it happens a dozen times a year at least–and rarely are such people accused, let alone charged, of a crime. We’ve certainly never called the police–and I have no plans to start–even though these matters can sometimes involve much more money than the petty theft that would get you busted at your local WalMart.

What those people are doing is wrong–I suppose it is even theft–but there wouldn’t be enough jails in the world to hold them all if everyone guilty of refusing to pay a bill were locked up. Honestly, I’m not sure if that is a criticism of our justice system itself or of our inherently dishonest and irresponsible society as a whole, but either way it reflects the universality of sin. To speak personally, while I’ve never myself refused to pay a bill, I’m certainly guilty of dishonesty and irresponsibility, probably even theft, on plenty of other “trivial” matters–which may or may not be more important than money!–and I doubt there are many among us who are not. Yet the chances that a given person will be charged with a crime for such a thing is far from equal. If you are, say, a low-income minority you are much more likely to get arrested and tried for theft than if you are wealthy and well-connected. As one juror observed:

If you steal a couple thousand, you’ll get thrown in jail, but if you steal a couple billion, the government will probably bail you out and give you a nice severance package to boot.

So much for justice.



  1. very thoughtful and interesting reflection, ken. early in my career, i worked as a editor for an alumni magazine in a law school for a few years (during which the OJ trial occurred, coincidently), which was an enlightening experience when it comes to who lawyers and judges (lawyers in robes) are. anyway, enjoyed your reflections and appreciated your articulation of concerns I also share. blessings.

  2. […] Christian Carnival 276 This week’s Christian Carnival is up at Thoughts and Confessions of a Girl Who Loves Jesus. It includes my post on Justice and Jury Duty. […]

  3. […] Olson’s first go at jury duty. […]

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