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22 March 2004 @ 12:04 pm
Jury Duty  
Performing my biennial citizenish thingy. This time I'm in the State Court pool, which jury assembly room has fewer amenities than the Superior Court does (multiple modem capable phone lines, kiosks, etc.), instead being limited to chairs, one phone, and two bathrooms.

Not on a jury yet, so had a long lunch and dashed home to drop the briefcase off (no need for the computer junk if there is nothing to plug it into).

I enjoy serving on a jury. I've always been fascinated by the trial procedures part of the law (it's the little niggling detail contract stuff that I imagine would make me crazy (er) if I went into the law). I especially enjoyed a few years ago when a police officer was on the stand in a criminal case and his answer to the question of why he had pulled the defendant over was, "Because I ran his license plate and saw that he had two convictions for similar crimes." The entire jury just put down our notepads and sat back, as we knew he had just committed a no-no (you can't testify to a defendant's previous record unless he brings up character in his defense). The defense lawyer sort of stood up leisurely and said, in a stereotypical Southern accent, "Your Honor, I think I'm going to have to make a li'l objection to that."

Gotta love it.
 
 
Current Mood: thoughtfuljurisprudent
 
 
 
Phil Parkertigertoy on March 22nd, 2004 11:36 am (UTC)
I've never served on a jury myself; the one time I've been called for jury duty, I actually made it into the courtroom and watched a couple of juries empaneled once, but they didn't throw out enough jurors to get down to me. Most of the days I was nominally serving, I called the hotline in the morning and they told me I didn't have to come in that day.

The indicent you report is an example of one of the major ways I think our justice system is fundamentally broken: the trial is run by the lawyers, and the lawyers are trying to manipulate the jury into finding for their side with little regard for the truth. The rules of evidence are one of the tools the lawyers have for controlling what gets presented to the jury as the "facts".

In this specific case, let's assume that the officer testified truthfully that the reason that he pulled the defendant over was the defendant's prior record. Whether that's an appropriate reason to do so or not isn't at issue; the officer was asked a question on the stand. Is he supposed to lie on the stand, saying that his reasons were other than what they actually were? Is he supposed to refuse to answer the question and claim he's not allowed to say? That would, I think, be damaging to officer's credibility, and could be as prejudicial to the verdict as revealing the defendant's record. Is something that prejudices the verdict only inappropriate if it prejudices the verdict against the defendant?

When we start from the assumption that the trier of fact is too dumb to be able to judge the quality and relevance of evidence themselves, and so it's up to someone else to choose what evidence they get to see, why should we expect them to be able to find the truth?
Bill Suttonbedlamhouse on March 23rd, 2004 10:28 am (UTC)
Well, the problem was not so much the officer as the young DA assistant who didn't research the issue well enough to phrase the question properly (or, in fact, avoid the issue altogether since it really wasn't relevant).

And, while we would all like to believe that our fellow citizens have the same outlook on life and tendency to apply logic rather than emotion to all decisions, we all probably know from experience that's not the case. I know far too many people with extremely un-complex views of life who would be very likely to make up their minds on the level of "well, he did it before, he must have done it this time, too." They'd likely be right enough of the time that it works as a world view. They wouldn't be right all the time, though, and I believe in a justice system where (ideally) it is better for a guilty person to go unpunished than for an innocent person to be wrongly convicted.
Bill Suttonbedlamhouse on March 23rd, 2004 10:30 am (UTC)
Oh, and also to point out, this resulted in a mistrial (a do-over), not a directed verdict of innocent. So, it wasted people's time but was not an unresolvable problem on the part of the state.

We are a nation of laws enforced and upheld by human beings. Such things happen.
Bill Suttonbedlamhouse on March 23rd, 2004 10:33 am (UTC)
And another thing ...

I just reread and realized that in the original message I didn't specify directly that it was the prosecutor who asked the question. Had it been the defense attorney, the answer would have been allowed and the defendant would have been able to appeal any gulty verdict on the grounds his attorney was an idiot for asking the question.
Phil Parkertigertoy on March 23rd, 2004 01:12 pm (UTC)
There's a bizarre double standard here -- the prior conviction is relevant enough that it's OK to use as grounds for arrest, but it's not important enough evidence to mention it at the trial.

If we can't trust juries to do better than make snap emotional judgments rather than sensibly evaluating the evidence, why the heck do we believe they're better than consulting the Magic 8 Ball?
Keriskeristor on March 23rd, 2004 09:22 am (UTC)
Interesting cultural difference. In the UK most people eligible for jury service aren't even called on more than once in their life (my mother was called twice, I haven't been called at all). On the other hand a lot of our cases are seen by a group of three "Justices of the Peace", who are generally not professional lawyers, with no jury involved.
Bill Suttonbedlamhouse on March 23rd, 2004 10:22 am (UTC)
We were told that the large number of people needed (we had 150 in this week's pool) is due mostly to the huge increase in civil cases (lawsuits).

I don't remember my folks serving on jury duty, but I grew up in a much smaller county than the one I am in now.
Phil Parkertigertoy on March 23rd, 2004 01:39 pm (UTC)
The number of jurors needed for criminal trials is kept very low because the overwhelming bulk of criminal cases are decided by plea-bargain. If all criminal cases actually went before juries, and the trials were the same length and complexity that they are now, I think the system would collapse. Judging by the complaining most people do when they get summoned, the public sees jury duty as an almost unbearable burden now; if they had to serve ten times as much, it wouldn't be pretty. (Nor would the court backlogs, or paying for it all.) I don't think we could have real trials for everyone we currently charge with crimes, but I also think that plea bargaining makes a mockery of justice.