The Jury: Where Wisdom and Truth Meet

This is the 4th and final blog in a series on my experience as a juror in a criminal case.  The 1st blog is Judging the Jury: the 2nd  –  Judging the Judge: The Black Robed Attorney; and 3rdJudging the Attorneys: The Art of Storytelling

Trumbull County Courthouse

 I found rendering the decision to be mentally and emotionally consuming.  You know more about this case and these people than you would ever have cared to know.  Yet, there are so many things you don’t know, and that the court will not permit you to know that would be so helpful in rendering a decision. “Past performance is not indicative of future returns,” or so investment wisdom says.  Jurors are not permitted to know what the past performance was and yet they are asked to make a judgment that will affect the future of several individuals.   You are locked in a room with people who are erstwhile strangers to you.  It is another form of decontextualizing in the court process.  You have no idea how these people see things, or how or if they can work together to come to a decision.

Jury deliberations are all about wisdom and discernment.  Truth, though important to the jurors’ own sense of what they are doing, is not what the court proceedings offered them.  Evidence and testimony is given – but only within the limits of what the defense and prosecutors intend for the jury to know (or what the judge will allow).   The jury decision is in some ways perhaps humanity striving to be at its best – trying to make a human judgment about other human beings within all of the limits of human knowledge and understanding and within American judicial limits.  The process is difficult, and for me at least I feel somewhat haunted by the experience of serving on the jury even days after the verdict was rendered.

{The jury process did make me wonder if in other venues, say in government, you have a committee deadlocked by political bickering – might work in businesses and even churches as well – you lock them in a room and tell them they can’t come out until they have reached unanimous decisions.  It did work for our jury anyway but I am aware that itsn’t always the case.}

There was a line in the judge’s instructions about “proven beyond reasonable doubt” which really helped me understand what I was doing on the jury:  “’Proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ is proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of the person’s own affairs.”     The proof in the criminal trial is not absolute.  It isn’t 100% sure, but again is very human.   It isn’t just empirical science, but also requires real human experience and wisdom.   It also is something humanly understandable.  Would I be willing to act on or rely on what was presented in my own affairs?    Obviously, as the news reports, court and juries can make the wrong decisions.  But the law is not claiming to be infallible, and the jury is very human in its deliberations, for each juror is affected not only by the facts, but also by their intuitions, common sense, their emotions, their wisdom,  experience and by their group of peers: their fellow jurors.  Amazingly twelve strangers can work together and form a common mind and opinion.  This should give some hope to America badly fractured by political polarity and party politics.   People with very diverse views and with substantive disagreements can work together to come to a common decision.

When the deliberations were done, and the verdict returned and read in court, the jury was released from its obligations.  In a real way I felt my life was given back to me.  I also felt drained of energy, but that is to be expected from an introvert put into a social situation from which he cannot extract himself.

The judge told us that she felt we had come to the right decision.  She knew more about the case than we, and she told us there were many factors that ordinarily would be considered relevant to the case – history and context – but exactly these things the law did not permit us to have for we were asked to judge only about this one incidence, not about all the things that the defendant had done up to this point.

The judge gave us a letter thanking us for our service, which had these words:

“The vast majority of countries in the world do not use the jury system.  It is sometimes inefficient, expensive, and inconvenient, yet the ‘right to a speedy public trial by an impartial jury’ has been at the core of American jurisprudence for over 200 years.”

I do not know about her claim that most countries in the world do not use a jury system, but indeed I would say the jury system surely seemed “inefficient, expensive, and inconvenient.”   Yet, I would not trade it away for a system which was purely efficient, inexpensive and convenient: for generally such systems have been the “justice” of tyrants and dictatorships.  The American system, shared by other nations, has in many criminal cases the state paying both for the prosecution and the defense of the accused.  The state has an interest in justice and fairness, though there are endless critics of our system.  It has an interest in protecting its citizens and also protecting the rights of the accused. 

I found no particular satisfaction in having to judge the life of a fellow citizen, but I did find satisfaction in participating in the legal system of a democracy.  There was comfort in hearing from the judge that she felt we had rendered the right decision, having skated through a road filled with pitfalls. 

I came through the experience with a greater respect for public defenders and for prosecuting attorneys: people we love to hate.  They both are working parts of American democracy and freedom.  The process reminded me once again that in life we need not only law to govern, but also wisdom to discern.