In Praise of the Jury System

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July 6, 2011 by D Stack

Yesterday a Florida jury found Casey Anthony not guilty in the death of her two-year old daughter, Caylee Marie Anthony. To say this was an unpopular verdict would be an understatement. A number of my friends have been quite genuinely upset by this verdict. CNN broadcaster Nancy Grace declared “somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight” and “I’m not going to let some kooky jury stop justice”.

I will say that I am not someone who has carefully followed this case. I really don’t know if Casey Anthony killed her daughter or not. At best she seems to be a pretty horrible person and mother who would make false accusations against a babysitter and be indifferent to the death of her daughter. In other words, I’m not writing this blog post to praise her acquittal.

Rather, I am writing to discuss my faith in the much-maligned jury system. And to be honest I am not often waiting in eager anticipation of the nice letter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts telling me the good news that I’ve been selected for jury duty – quite likely at some court far, far away… And through luck I’d made it many years until I somehow found myself on a jury. A lot of times getting notification I didn’t need to report or getting dismissed early until I was finally selected for a jury.

I don’t think we treat our jurors with the respect they deserve. Here in Massachusetts, for example, your parking expenses are not reimbursable. Which doesn’t sound too terrible until you realize that you might get called to jury duty in the Boston area where you can easily spend thirty to forty dollars a day on parking. Moreover, while your employer is required to pay you for your salary for the first three days of jury duty, after that there is no obligation. And if they don’t you get just fifty dollars a day for your jury duty. So try getting a three-month trial in Boston…

In any case, I was fortunate that my jury duty was in a suburban area with plenty of parking. And my trial lasted less than a full day. What impressed me was the people in our jury, from a variety of backgrounds, different races, ages, etc. all really took their job seriously. No one really wanted to be there but given that we were there we wanted to do the job to the best of our abilities.

Our case was far from a murder case. It was a minor fender-bender where the person who had been rear-ended claimed the injury reactivated a bad back pain that he had finally been cured of. Unfortunately the surgery which had been claimed to have cured him less than 48 hours before the accident. And he had had numerous previous surgeries that had unsuccessfully tried to treat his back pain. To be honest, none of us particularly liked the defendant. He had this attitude which really rubbed most of us in the jury the wrong way. But we were determined to use the facts available to us. We poured through page after page of medical records looking for any conclusive – or even near-conclusive statement – that the accident caused the recent back pain. There was none. We didn’t particularly like finding for the defendant  but we didn’t find sufficient evidence to find for the plaintiff.

In a jury you find yourself with an awesome responsibility. You are part of our nation’s justice system, whether deciding on a minor personal injury case or a horrible murder. There may be no one else interested in the case you are deciding or it may be a media frenzy. Either way, it isn’t everyone else who has to make a decision on the verdict, it is you. You’re the one who has to sift through the evidence, the testimony, your own experiences and common sense, and apply them in reaching a verdict. I found it interesting that one of the jurors in the Casey trial indicated they were “sick to our stomachs” about voting not guilty. I get the impression they believed she was guilty but felt they were forced to find her not guilty based on the evidence presented to them.

Was this jury wrong? It’s certainly possible, either in whether Casey Anthony killed her daughter or in the way they interpreted the law. But I truly believe they did the best job they could do and did their job with honesty and integrity.

Is there a better system? I can’t think of one. Many countries don’t use juries. But I believe the jury system is a vital means of making our disputes – whether civil or criminal – judged not by the government but by our peers. Peers who typically live the same types of lives as the litigants. But at the same time, the vetting process is designed to make certain that while they are peers, they also don’t have a personal stake in the outcome. This lack of a stake is powerful. Yes, your case will be decided by people who are not out to get you. But they are also people who don’t care about you, don’t realize why you are so special. In truth they want to complete their service and get on with their lives.


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July 2011
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