Daily Life and the Jury System

Daily Life and the Jury System

When I worked as a regular newspaper columnist, I absorbed two informal, folkloric strictures on subject matter: No columns based on conversations with cab drivers and none touting jury service as a magisterium of democracy, where one’s faith in the people is refreshed. The fear, I think, was that a columnist who dotes on the wisdom of cabbies or fellow jurors is confessing that he becomes one of “the people” only from the back of a cab or when he has been summoned legally to meet with “the people” face-to-face.

Yet everything Tocqueville says about juries as schools of democratic virtue and bulwarks of liberty and equality is true, and not because deliberating with other jurors deflates a pundit’s conceits. I’ve served on five New York City juries, criminal and civil, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and every one of them confirmed Tocqueville’s observation that juries instill a deep sense of equity that arises in sharing responsibility for another person’s fate.

That was true even for one of my jury deliberations that failed. Two Latina women had been caught red-handed, stealing armfuls of coats off a rack at the Kings Plaza shopping mall, but our jury included an aging, pony-tailed hippie-cum-radical who, for world-historical reasons about which he was interminably eloquent, was NOT going to convict a poor nonwhite of any crime. It was in that jury room that I first heard a black person tell this white ideologue that he was being racist in refusing to pay nonwhites (the defendants) the elementary compliment of holding them to standards he would demand of his own children. Our holdout was unmoved and prevented our reaching a verdict.

Years later, as a journalist, I was told by an insider in the Central Park Jogger case that during jury deliberation a Latino juror had slammed his fist on the table, glared at two black jurors, and said, “All right, all right, I’ll vote to convict Ramon Santana if you’ll vote to convict Kharey Wise.” If this actually happened and played a role in the convictions (which were later overturned), it was a bitterly ironic rebuke to what the civil rights movement fought for when it opposed all-white juries on the grounds that every defendant should receive justice based solely on the evidence and not on ascriptions of racial characteristics by jurors who consider themselves loyal delegates of their races or bearers of a presumed racial wisdom

“Racial wisdom” sometimes has a sad validity; one reason that juries must be racially integrated is that people with a certain cultural experience bring to the table understandings of motives and perceptions that others lack. But preemptive racial brokering is an affront to everyone’s dignity and so is the ideological presumption that “racism made them do it”—as in my jury’s shoplifting case. When these approaches are brought to a trial, the idea of the jury as a “free school” of civic virtue and a crucible of ju...

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