I overheard someone saying today that they look forward to jury duty because it gives them “a chance to see justice served” and had they stopped right there, I wouldn’t have anything to say right now. The entire sentence, however, was “It gives me a chance to see justice served and help the police put a bad person behind bars.”
And THAT is the subject of today’s post: The role of the criminal juror. Read all the way to the end of the post and you will get a free gift guaranteed to be worth more than whatever they’re going to pay you for jury duty. The only catch is that you’ll probably have to go to work instead.
Here’s what I wish everyone who reported to jury duty for criminal court was required to swear to when they walked in:
I understand that I am not here to help the police. I understand that I am not here to help the court system. I understand that I am not here to help the judge. I understand that I am not here to put a bad person behind bars. I believe I am, in fact, here to do exactly the opposite. I am here to be an obstacle to a conviction – and I understand that unless I am, an innocent person will go to jail. At the outset of the trial, I will favor the accused, no matter what the charges and force the Prosecutor to present evidence to sway my opinion. I will view all of that evidence with a skeptical eye and listen to the rebuttal of the evidence by the Defense with an open mind. If I can find any reasonable doubt, I will not convict.
Here’s why every juror should adopt that creed: It’s how our system is designed to work. Almost everything about a criminal trial, in theory, is designed to put the Prosecutor at a disadvantage. The burden of proof? “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” Think about that. It’s huge. If there is ANY reasonable doubt, the jury should acquit. The composition of the jury? Peers of the accused (at least in theory, but that’s another rant entirely). Have you ever thought about why we’re supposed to have a jury of our peers? There are a lot of theories about what that concept means, but here’s my opinion: the jury is supposed to be able to see the circumstances of the case from the same perspective the accused would have. They should be able to understand the state of mind and surroundings involved. That level of understanding is almost never going to favor the Prosecutor.
There’s a part of us that assumes that someone would not be charged unless they were guilty. That’s crap. People get arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time every single day. When someone is charged with a particularly heinous crime like child molest, rape, or murder – it’s tough to even start on their side. Guess what – no one ever said jury duty was supposed to be easy and it shouldn’t be. Someone’s life is at stake. Leave the moral outrage and the emotional pain to the parties, the victims and their families where it belongs. Jury duty should be tedious, boring, morally difficult work. If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. In the horrible cases, more than in any others, jurors should be hyper-vigilant in their role to protect the accused until convinced by the evidence to do otherwise – with a case like child molest, even a person accused and proven innocent is going to have a tough time going back to work, to church, to home, to their neighborhood, and to a normal life.
The Prosecutor is trying to take away someone’s freedom, reputation, and money. Not to mention, potentially, their spouse, children, job, house, car and everything else they may have. If they’re guilty, fine, there are circumstances to crime. But it’s not supposed to be easy for the Prosecutor; it should be incredibly hard. There are a lot of people in jail or prison right now because they feared how easy it has become to convict and they took a deal. Guess what? At least some of those people are innocent. I’ve met people who served more than a decade in prison for a crime they didn’t commit and were only released because of dumb luck and DNA that proved their innocence.
I’m not saying a jury should never rule against the accused. Of course I’m not saying that. Many of the people charged with a crime, maybe even most, are guilty of that crime. I’m saying that at the outset of the trial jurors should be very skeptical of the charges and completely on the side of the accused – if not in their heart, at least in their state of mind. Jurors should force the Prosecutor and Police to do the work to convict. If they don’t do the job, they should acquit.
By the way, I’m not trying to belittle Prosecutors or imply that they’re evil. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do at a criminal trial – they are seeking convictions. That’s their job and most of them work diligently to accomplish their goal. The problem isn’t with the Prosecution, the Defense, the Police, the Judge or even the system. Our system is an adversarial one and if it seems to outsiders at times as if everyone is working against everyone else, then that’s proof that our system is working is designed. The problem is with the jurors and the laws. You’ve always had the power to affect the laws with your vote. Now you know how to affect the jurors as well.
So if you made it through this whole post, I’ll give you a little bonus prize: The next time you get called to jury duty, come back to this blog and print out the part in bold above. Take that statement with you to jury selection. The first time either side asks you a question, calmly take out your paper and read it verbatim. I guarantee you will be excused. In fact, if the Prosecutor can manage it, most likely everyone else in the room who heard what you read will be excused as well. Why is that so? After all, it’s true, fair and encapsulates the way our system is designed to work and every lawyer in that room will know as much.
You will be excused because by reading that statement you’ll have demonstrated that you not only know your role, but that you’re capable of “infecting” others with that knowledge and the very last thing any Prosecutor wants is a juror who knows what he or she is supposed to do … and that is probably the best argument I can make in favor of my position.