Sunday, January 29, 2012

Defending Juries

America is almost alone in the world in believing in the intersection of democracy and law and that by selecting 12 disinterested (which doesn't mean bored or stupid) people to settle cases we seek the wisdom we think dwells in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.  

William Landay is a lawyer-turned-writer who worked in the Boston DA's office and whose new book,"Defending Jacob," is about an assistant prosecutor who investigates his own 14-year-old son's suspected role in a killing. April Henry, in her review in today's Oregonian, writes that the "courtroom scenes are well drawn, and it's clear that Landay is writing what he knows." She quotes this passage from the book, in which the protagonist considers the jury that has been selected to determine the fate of the 14-year-old: 
It was almost comical how ignorant they were of the law, of how trials worked, even of this case which had been splashed all over the newspapers and evening news. They were chosen for their perfect ignorance of these things. This is how the system works. In the end, the lawyers and judges happily step aside and hand the entire process over to a dozen complete amateurs. It would be funny if it weren't so perverse. How futile the whole process is. Surely Jacob must have realized as he looked as those fourteen blank faces. The towering lie of the criminal justice system -- that we can reliably determine the truth, that we can know 'beyond a reasonable doubt' who is guilty and who is not -- is built on this whopper of an admission: After a thousand years or so of refining the process, judges and lawyers are no more able to say what is true than a dozen knuckleheads selected at random off the street.
I've presented cases ranging from shoplifting to capital murder to well over 200 juries -- (btw, if this case was in Oregon it would be almost impossible for a 14-year-old, even one charged with murder, to receive a jury trial; it would instead be handled in juvenile court before a judge) -- and I've lost several in which I remain convinced the defendant was guilty. But my faith in the jury system remains strong. The arrogance and contempt expressed about jurors -- indeed the entire system --  in this passage is profoundly disturbing.

Is this really what Landay "knows"?