The jury

It’s not often that I respond to a comment with a separate blog post. I’ve done it only a few times here. What prompts it is when I think that merely a comment in reply would be insufficient. So here I find myself revisiting Casey Anthony once again to respond to this comment on my last article on the case:

You seem to have developed the idea in your mind that people should listen to a “jury” about the evidence when, by their own admission, they did not even look at the evidence when they deliberated… How can anyone consider someone an authority on something who didn’t even look at that something? You are on very slippery logical ground when you do that.

In the aftermath of the Casey Anthony trial, there was without doubt a lot of people angry at the jury. Just read around on most any blog about the case and you’ll find comments questioning the intelligence of the jury and accusing them of ignoring the obvious, among comments and words that seem to only go downhill from there. And comments attacking the idea of a jury – not the jury in the Casey Anthony trial, but the entire jury system we enjoy in criminal courts today – were also pushed around by people, including Senator Mitch McConnell when he used the Casey Anthony trial as an example of why terrorists should not be tried in civilian courts:

We just found with the Caylee Anthony case how difficult it is to get a conviction in a U.S. court. I don’t think a foreigner is entitled to all the protection in the Bill of Rights. They should not be in U.S. courts and before military commissions.1Fox Nation. (2011, July 10). “Holder Wants to Try Terrorists in the Same Civilian Courts That Let Casey Anthony Free“.

Senator McConnell appears to be saying with this comment that juries cannot be trusted and that they must take a more reliable route to ensuring alleged terrorists are locked up for good. Am I the only one unsettled by the thought of an elected official denigrating one of the fundamental safeguards of our liberties? Indeed the above-quoted commenter gives the impression through the wording of his comment – “listen to a ‘jury'” – that juries cannot be trusted, and there is something very unsettling about that idea.

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I have never said that a jury is an authority with regard to the evidence. All one has to do is look at how often convictions are overturned as a result of new evidence or wrongfully obtained evidence to see that juries can be wrong with their verdict. In fact I brought up such an example in my previous article on the Casey Anthony trial: the conviction of Master Sergeant Timothy Hennis that was vacated by an appellate court in favor of a new trial that resulted in an acquittal. Juries can be wrong. I do not deny this, nor does anyone at all familiar with the jury system. It is a well-known issue with the jury system.

And yet the jury system is what we still have, as imperfect as it is and can be, thanks to that pesky document called the Constitution of the United States, which provides for a right to a trial by jury in the Sixth Amendment:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law…

This is a restatement of a similar requirement provided in Article III, Section 2:

The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed

Clearly the Drafters of the Constitution felt that even an imperfect jury was still sacred to the criminal trial process. Why is this? Why is it so better than the alternatives? Because the alternative is to have a full government tribunal for trying criminals. Or we could turn everything over to the court of public opinion… yikes! Or just let Nancy Grace decide.

Even an imperfect jury is still better than either of those alternatives, and I think even a government tribunal is far superior to the court of public opinion and Nancy Grace’s opinion, combined.

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Juries are made up of people. People are not infallible. Thus juries, and by extension the jury system, is imperfect. The jury is, however, presumed incorrupt and unbiased.

A jury may well respond erroneously to a question of fact because their judgment has been clouded by emotion. The fact this occurs has worked quite well to the advantage of prosecutors and the disadvantage of many people. It is a known and oft-cited problem with juries. But then, that’s also why there’s an appeals process.

But the greater difficulty with regard to a jury verdict is that all of the evidence and testimony that is presented during a trial is reduced down to one simple phrase that is either “Guilty” or “Not guilty”2And possibly other options that may be available based on what the applicable laws allow. We cannot know if a verdict of “guilty” was returned by a jury who made that decision purely on emotion, the evidence, or some combination therein, regardless of what the individual jurors say after the fact.

If a jury acquits a defendant, we cannot really know why, but the why is irrelevant, as an acquittal by a jury cannot be vacated or overturned. Instead we’re all left with what is really the only conclusion implied by the verdict: the prosecution did not sufficiently prove their case.

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Going back to the comment above, I don’t believe we “should” listen to the jury about the evidence. I believe we must listen to the jury. But I don’t believe any jury is an “authority” with regard to the evidence presented to them. Some people will not understand certain concepts regardless of how well you explain it. So why, then, must we listen to the jury?

It is quite simple: if we always ignore a jury when they return a verdict we don’t like, that can lead us to undermine the jury system and lose faith in the jury system. And if we start losing faith in the jury system, then we can be more easily convinced to give up our right to a jury trial. And if that were to occur, we lose one of the most important safeguards of our liberties.

In other words, we must listen to the jury to ensure we still have the jury to which to listen.

To be sure there will always be controversial jury verdicts, verdicts that will generate large amounts of public outrage. Juries will convict the innocent and acquit the guilty. It is a well-known risk.

But while a jury will always be fallible and imperfect, there is no alternative to which we should or can trust our liberties as history has shown that the jury is the best way to protect our liberties with regard to accusations by the government. As such we should avoid denigrating the entire jury system simply because one jury returns a verdict with which there might be public disagreement.