Has serving on a jury in the U.S. given you a different view of the law and the judicial system? Has your view become better or worse of the system?
I already had a poor opinion of the jury and court system before I was ever summoned. My experience merely confirmed it.Trial by jury is an anachronism, and in an age where jurors have to send to the judge to ask what a Senator is, it is dangerous. It was a necessary remedy 750 years ago, when Henry II sent royal justices from shire to shire to try cases on the Crown’s behalf. Knowing nothing of local circumstances, the justices had a panel of local men swear to the truth of a matter. Of course it was an improvement over trial by ordeal or combat.Many matters today are simply too complex for reasonable decisions to be rendered by anyone except experts. To think that I might find myself at risk of being deprived of life, liberty, or property by the sort of person who voted for our current President is intolerable.Around 1976, I read Louis Nizer’s My Life in Court. Nizer argued for the plaintiff in a civil case in which a professional had been egregiously negligent. Any reasonable verdict ought to have included enormous damages. In his summation, Nizer said the defendant’s indifference to his professional duty had been little short of criminal.When the verdict was read, the jury found for the plaintiff but, to Nizer’s astonishment, awarded an insultingly trivial sum. When Nizer asked why, it turned out that the whole time, the jury had never understood the difference between a civil and criminal trial. They could not evade the defendant’s obvious guilt, but when Nizer used the word “criminal” in his summation, they feared that if they awarded large damages, this would somehow result in a prison sentence for the defendant.I was summoned for jury duty in 1997 and spent 2 or 3 days reading in the jury room. Finally, I was called.The judge, who had the reputation of being a judicial lightweight whose wealthy family had purchased her judgeship, gave a languid description to the jury, in a barely audible voice, of the difference between a criminal standard of proof (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) and a civil standard (“preponderance of the evidence”). I would be amazed if one in 10 understood what she meant. I was tempted to just speak up and ask them, but of course, I would have been immediately held in contempt.The case was about a traffic accident. The judge allowed one of the attorneys to make a statement before the jurors that, as far as I could tell, immediately prejudiced the case and made a fair trial impossible before it began.Years later, that judge was forced into retirement when it was found that she was conducting her own investigation into a case before her court and actually visiting the home of one of the parties to demand information.The sheriff’s deputy who escorted us to that courtroom was found as a customer in a crack house a few weeks later, in uniform, with his service revolver by his side.This happened in a city of over half a million people.I was called again in 2022. This time, I served for half a day on a grand jury. That, too, was an eye-opener.We were warned that we were not there to try the case, but only to decide, upon presentation of basic facts, if a “true bill” existed (that is, if it seemed there was probable cause to return an indictment and hold a trial). I did not find most of the presentations convincing.For instance, a robbery had occurred at a Walmart. A black man had been apprehended nearby, running. Now he may have been the robber, or perhaps he was someone else altogether. I asked on what basis this black man had been detained. The very polite detective presenting the case said he was sorry, but he had not been involved and was only presenting these facts on someone else’s behalf. I voted “no true bill.” In this, as in the other cases we heard, almost all the jury seemed to simply rubber-stamp whatever the police said.The next witness, a female officer, was not so polite, she seemed to regard any questions as an impertinence. A gun had been found under the hood of a man’s car, it had been assumed it must be his, and his denial of ownership was ignored. I pointed out to the officer that I did not own a gun and asked what was to prevent some gun owner who had committed a crime from placing it under the hood of my car, only to be discovered by a surprised mechanic when I took my car to the dealer for servicing. I don’t recall her answer, only her smart, sarcastic attitude. My overall impression of the process was that the grand jury was expected to uncritically vote a true bill for insubstantial and poorly prepared cases.My third experience was for Federal jury duty. This judge seemed intent on badgering everyone, of any background or persuasion, to acknowledging that they could be objective in judging any case. He made a show of asking for people’s opinions but then simply ignored them. For instance, the case to be cried was a gun crime (but not a violent one), and I told him that my cousin’s two children had been shot to death by their stepfather just a few years before, and the judge still said “But you can be objective in this matter, yes?” I suspect many people answered “Yes” for fear that if they answered otherwise, they would be held in contempt, perhaps even jailed.One poor woman even spoke up and said she had Crohn’s disease, which would make her bathroom needs urgent and immediate, and the judge still said he thought it best if she would serve. I found his forcing her to admit such a thing publicly, disgusting.Despite the judge, the attorneys found ample reason to challenge me, and I was dismissed.I believe cases should be tried before mature, well-informed people of sound judgement and sufficient knowledge to evaluate the evidence. To think that such a group is likely to be discovered in today’s United States by the present jury selection system is simply laughable.