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The Jury is Out

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Toss a bizarre assortment of people together, put them into a high stress situation, and what do you have? You might be thinking reality TV. But in fact, this is a reasonable description of the cornerstone of American law: the jury system.

Jury duty is much on my mind. To be a non-felon living in Baltimore City is to receive a yearly notice to serve. Mine always comes in the spring, as it recently did. Contrary to the old saw that "lawyers never pick academics for juries," I get picked. Three decades of answering these annual invitations hasn't led to profound insights into the criminal justice system, the state of American society, or how much coffee is safe to drink before entering a courtroom. The experience has, however, produced one firm conclusion that I'll hold for the end.

Because I consider serving on a jury my civic duty, I usually don't try to escape it. The one time I did, I succeeded at a cost. The case involved a traffic accident. The judge warned that it might take many days. That posed a serious problem for a number of reasons, none of which he found compelling. The pool of jurors dwindled as he questioned us further. It looked grim with one remaining seat to be filled and only two potential jurors left, a graduate student from my department and me. The judge then asked if either of us had been involved in any legal action stemming from a traffic accident. The fact that my family had been hit by a drunk driver 40 years earlier did not strike him as a disqualification. I then blurted out that I think Baltimoreans are lousy drivers. The last seat went to the graduate student. It was several weeks after the trial before she spoke to me, and then only out of necessity.

The juries on which I've served have mostly been serious and tough. The last one had to choose between the testimony of a young guy rough around the edges and a nun. The jury didn't trust the nun.

That jury was a bunch of softies compared to an earlier one. The case was a shooting by a man in his sixties carrying a gun borrowed from his employer. As he left a bar he was confronted by a group of toughs with steel pipes wanting to beat him up for an earlier incident on the dance floor. He wounded a couple of them in what may have been self-defense. The jury seemed like a mixed lot of mostly law-abiding citizens, but our discussions revealed darker sides. The first sign was a prolonged discourse among the women jurors on differences between how men and women fight in bars. It was very enlightening, although not about the case. More chilling was an equally well-informed discussion about handguns — what kinds to use for what purpose, and how different caliber bullets behave when they hit soft tissue or bone. At that point I was more terrified of my fellow jurors than of the defendant. I would have felt safer freeing him and incarcerating them.

In the end, it didn't matter. Eleven were for acquittal, although some because they thought the defendant brought the wrong gun for the job. The 12th held out for conviction and wouldn't budge. He reasoned that everyone in the case had been in a bar before the shooting, therefore they all were drunks, and drunks can't be believed about anything. He knew this, he said, because he had been a drunk most of his life. We never fathomed how that logic should lead to a conviction, but we agreed that his self-analysis was perceptive.

That experience led to my one big conclusion about the jury system. I'd take my chances with a judge.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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