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A jury that is meant to convict
By James Hall
With the parade of court cases that fill the news cycle, it is no wonder that the public becomes confused about the criminal justice system. Case after case is presented as another defense team spins distortion, another crime scene is bungled or the prosecution is seen as incompetent. Under this radar screen slides the role of the jury, in who's charge rest the final determination of guilt or decision of not guilty. Juries don't decide innocence. They are meant to judge if the prosecution has proven their case, based upon the rules of evidence, and whether the defendant is guilty of the crime charged; beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the standard, and one that has served this country well.
With that said, every American should be disturbed with the rising numbers that are incarcerated in this country. The number is approaching the two million mark, not to mention those on parole, probation, work release, half way house, or home detention. Quite a figure to swallow! Does this mean that the US has a greater number of criminals than other societies, or could there be caustic faults within our justice system? The simple answer is that behavior that is frowned upon and discouraged in many nations is all too often, treated as a criminal act in America. The notion that every violation of the law must be subject to criminal sanctions that demand involuntary confinement is absurd.
All correct thinking citizens want a country where respect for the law is inculcated into the culture. A society where each individual listens to the voice of conscience within themselves and seeks to act in accord with the codified statures that provide an outline for law and order. Whether to obey those laws or not is not the question today. What is the query, is whether that society has gone mad in its pursuit to demand compliance to all those laws, and the kind of punishment that is justified?
The idea of punishment has been with us for a very long time. Its record for improving society is suspect at best. The state views its role as enforcing obedience to their rules. The interference of the jury is seen as an inconvenience at best and a threat to the entire order at its worst. Those that are called and serve on these panels are supposed to be peers of the defendants that are charged. How often is this intention met? Examine the following and answer for yourself. From the current State of Florida, Juror Voir Dire Questionnaire, the following is required for selection:
At the bottom appears in bold print: Juror must be a US and Florida citizen and a (specified) County resident; and not convicted without governor's pardon of a felony crime.
Close scrutiny demonstrates that how you answer these question would reasonably be expected to influence if you would be called for juror duty. You may say that the state needs to rule out those who are not qualified to serve. Fine, standards should exist. But what is the legitimate justification for asking, if not to exclude, if you or any of your close friends have been accused of a crime? And for those who have served their time and paid the price for their misdeeds, what is the value of the further penalty to banish their role in the citizen's duty for juror service? The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn is that the state fears the participation of anyone that may harbor, the potential of ill will, against that government.
Is this the kind of citizen pool for a juror of one's peers? How far we have slid from the principles of our common law heritage. The jury is the last and only true protection that the citizen has when his government seeks to forcibly require the surrender of his freedom. To loose that right, for being judged by a real segment of your neighbors, is the forfeiture of your very liberty.
The debate for prudent penalties for specific offenses, is left for another time. The systemic elimination of major segments of the population from the essence of a society that is supposed to be ruled under the dictum of law, is the greater crime that few will see, but all will feel the ramification. When a prosecutor becomes a persecutor, and has the ability to exclude those who will not kneel, only those who beg, will be allowed to eat. Justice is far too important to allow this tragedy to continue.
Defence attorneys can violate the spirit of Voir Dire, as well. The example of Geoffrey Fieger in the Kevorkian case stands out. The survey to the potential jury included the question: "Does your religion forbid suicide?" So Christians should also be added to the list of exclusions? Among all the Hamilton Burger's, not even a Perry Mason can be trusted.
The freedom we all so cherish is a fragile and fleeting ingredient. To protect its substance, the element that is at the very core of its essence, needs preservation. The jury selection process is that important. Most trials are won or lost by who is selected to sit on the panel. When will we as the citizen masters of our society demand the natural claim to fulfill our duty, and require the right to be a juror? The freedom to loose is yours and mine. Should we not be judged by those who are our peers, or are you content to allow the gamble from a roll of loaded dice, at a casino where the house always wins?
James Hall is the driving force behind Breaking all the Rules, a collection of his essays.
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