Jury system is far from perfect, but makes justice system the best

Copyright 2016 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a guest column on December 8, 2016
in the Austin American-Statesman)

     In watching a recent TV series, The People versus O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, I relived the mid-1990s trial and the shock felt throughout the world when a jury of Simpson’s peers, mostly black, found him not guilty of murder.

     When announced, the verdict had a negative impact on the public’s faith in our jury system; many believed that the evidence of Simpson’s guilt was overwhelming.

     Throughout the long trial, those viewing the day-by-day events on TV witnessed the issue of guilt controlled by the issue of racism, which Simpson’s defense team, implicitly sanctioned by a weak trial judge, had put on trial.

     Most of the time, juries get it right. In a few cases, however, as in the Simpson case, verdicts have been wrong. A later case, the first Rodney King trial, also raised questions that tainted our jury process. In that case, a nearly all-white jury acquitted all of the white Los Angeles police officers charged with King’s horrendous injuries. The brutal beating had been caught on film. After that verdict, many advocated major reform, if not outright abolishment.

     It is indeed ironic that in England, the country from whom we inherited our jury system, Parliament has abolished most juries in both civil and criminal cases.

     Today, our jury system plays a crucial role in safeguarding due process under our Bill of Rights. It’s a protector of our public trust in our values within a process otherwise dominated by judges and lawyers, as well as sustenance for our democratic values.

     At the heart of the jury system is the theory that criminal defendants should be afforded a trial by their peers.

     The system has its virtues, of course, but it doesn’t always work. Many believe in major changes to preserve our faith in our judicial system. Some have called for a complete overhaul of a solidly American institution.

     Any system occasionally needs fine-tuning, so we must remain vigilant that reform occurs when justice demands it.

     Here are the criticisms: 1. Our jury system is expensive and time consuming. 2. Jurors are inexperienced or can’t fully comprehend complex cases. 3. Stronger personalities impose their opinions on others. 4. Juries aren’t truly representative of the community. 5. Jurors may know too much from inadmissible, pretrial publicity. 6. Jurors can fall victims of their own religious, social, and cultural biases. 7. They often disregard the judge’s instructions or the law in reaching their verdict. 8. Finally, most prospective jurors shirk their civic duty by doing everything they can to avoid jury service, making it difficult to arrive at a cross-section of the community.

     Most of these criticisms have some merit. And, because our system guards against revealing what goes on during jury deliberations, it isn’t known if jury nullification—the term used when juries ignore application of the law to the facts of a case—takes place. The secrecy itself prevents us from learning if a jury committed error.

     In response, supporters contend: 1. Juries bring a broad array of life experiences and knowledge to a case. 2. Jurors are likely to follow generally accepted values of society. 3. Discussions between jurors insure an analysis of all aspects of a case. 4. Juries in criminal cases protect defendants from overreach or abuse by the government and safeguard the right to a fair trial in which they are assured their right to defend themselves without fear of retaliation.

     Despite the attacks on our present system, no one has yet come up with a better way.

     To learn more about the American jury system and its imperfections, I recommend: Richard Lempert, The American Jury System: A Synthetic Overview, 90 Chi.-Kent. L. Rev. 825 (2015).

     In 2005, the American Bar Association did a study called Principles for Juries and Jury Trials. It established 19 principles defining what the American Bar Association considered as its “fundamental aspirations for the management of the jury system.” It went on to state, “The American Bar Association recognizes the legal community’s . . . need to refine . . . jury practice so that the right to jury trial is preserved and juror participation enhanced.”

     Our jury system’s survival throughout this nation’s history attests to its strength and vitality. Despite its imperfections, our system of justice in this country, in which juries play an integral part, is the best on the face of the earth.