The United States likes to pride itself on having a superior legal system. All through my experience in US schools, I remember that underlying so many of the lessons about politics, government, and US history. Our legal system, I was taught, is the best in the world, without parallel. It’s so splendid we intervene in other countries to bring them the beacon of democracy and the standards of the US legal system. My attitudes about the legal system became skeptical when I was fairly young for a lot of reasons, ranging from the injustices I saw around me to being exposed to other legal systems and seeing that they aren’t actually mired in the Dark Ages.
But there’s one incident that sticks out to me, crystal clear, as the moment when I fundamentally understood how broken the legal system in this country is. I was summoned to jury duty on one of the biggest trials Mendocino County had seen in a long time. There was a huge juror pool. I drove back and forth from the Coast and Ukiah day after day for weeks, just waiting for voir dire. I think I’ve written about this before, about the fellowships that developed between the various jurors and the waiting and having my knitting needles confiscated by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy.
I was never in doubt about my suitability as a juror. Legally, I was an ideal person to select, because I had absolutely no familiarity with the case. It involved events that happened a very long time ago, when I was too young to have followed the news or cared. Reporting on the case hadn’t trickled over to the Coast yet. I knew nothing, I recognised none of the names on the juror questionnaire. I was the blank slate, the juror who comes to the case without any prejudices.
And, ethically, I was a pretty sound choice as a juror too. I’ve been taught to think critically. I could hear complex evidence in a case, including scientific evidence, I could weigh the information presented, I could comprehend the testimony. It seems to me that in a trial of my peers, I would want people who would evaluate everything presented with a clear mind and a critical eye, focusing on important details so they could make a decision in full confidence.
When I finally made it to voir dire, I learned that, lack of knowledge about the case aside, attorneys tend not to want educated jurors who are capable of critical thinking and evaluation. We are, evidently, pretty much the last thing that is wanted. There was this moment when I was questioned by the defense and I looked the attorney in the eye and answered the questions clearly, and he nodded. He seemed to like me. He asked me what verdict I would return if the jury was seated this instant and asked to return a verdict and I said ‘not guilty’ and the other jurors looked at me in confusion and he asked me why and I said that the legal system is based on a presumption of innocence, with the prosecution bearing the burden of proof, and if the prosecution hadn’t presented a case, the only verdict I could ethically return would be ‘not guilty.’
I can’t remember when the prosecutor frowned for the first time, listening to me. It might have been when I said where I went to college, or when I said that I could listen to a case involving ‘alternative lifestyles’ fairly and reasonably; I was the only person in the jury box under 40 and probably the only person in the courthouse with a facial piercing. But when the words ‘burden of proof’ passed my lips, he whipped out his pencil and made a fast and furious note, and at the end of the day, I was struck.
I was shocked. There I was in my neat tailored suit (because I made a point of following the court’s dress code and consequently was better dressed than almost everyone in the courtroom including the lawyers), thinking I was the ideal candidate to be seated on a jury, able to focus on the case as presented and interpret information and with a thorough grounding in the legal system, and the prosecution struck me because I couldn’t be manipulated like the other jurors, I couldn’t be coaxed into thinking something, I would need to see proof and documentation and backup. It was like being slapped in the face and the last tatters of beliefs about the justice system just disappeared; I realised that jury selection is all about strategy and stacking the jury the way you want it to and trying to juggle the jurors in the way most favourable to your position, not about selecting the people most appropriate and qualified for the task.
Since then, I’ve read a lot about jury selection and how strategy is involved in the process and it’s been very eye-opening to see not just the level of thought that goes into it, but the amount of money dedicated to jury research and to understanding how to select the perfect jury. Money is king, even in the supposedly equal justice system, and the side with the most money gets its pick of jurors.
We hold the jury trial up as an examplar of all we believe in and all we’ve worked for, but when it comes down to it, the entire system is so fundamentally busted that there’s no such thing as a trial of your peers, no such thing as a fair hearing in court, and we wonder why so many people are deeply leery of the legal system.