Guest Commentary

The system seems to have little use for people who take a stand for justice

When I was called for jury duty last year, I went through the civic motions, knowing I would not be selected.

The reason? I am one who wears his politics on his sleeve. And his bumper.

In the waiting room, I dutifully filled out my paperwork with the rest of the grumpy herd of potential jurors. Presently, I was called upstairs.

At first, I was a backup, but I made the panel when Juror No. 2 raised his hand during the voir dire, and with some consternation, admitted he would always judge with his conscience foremost, which precipitated an interesting, if circular, exchange with the judge.

"You mean you would not be able to judge the accused solely on the facts presented and keeping in mind the instructions which I provide to the jury?"

"Your honor, I would weigh the evidence presented, but in the end, I would have to go with my conscience."

"You mean, you would ignore the judge's instructions, or even the evidence, if your conscience told you to do so?"

"Your honor, I would consider the evidence, and I would listen to your instructions, but I would also use common sense, and let my conscience be my guide."

"You mean ..."

After several rounds of this, during which the judge seemed far more concerned with the prospective juror's willingness to follow instructions--and wipe everything but the technicalities of the proceedings from his mind--than his ability to decide fairly on guilt or innocence, Juror No. 2 was dismissed.

I wondered if Juror No. 2 had ever heard of the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA), because he pretty neatly captured one of its basic arguments: A jury of peers, as such, is empowered to decide the guilt or innocence of their fellow citizens in good conscience, weighing whatever factors they deem necessary to reach a fair decision.

FIJA maintains that this was the original intent of the jury trial system, but that a jury's powers have been seriously eroded over the last two centuries, giving way to attorneys' machinations and distortions and judges' instructions to ignore this and consider only that, to the detriment of true justice.

As Juror No. 2 stepped down, the judge asked if I had any affirmative answers to the questions that had already been asked of the panel. I admitted that I knew a couple public defenders, and that I had been convicted of a misdemeanor as part of a political protest.

After lunch, we returned for the final cut, a list of categorical questions that prosecution and defense use to separate perceived wheat from feared chaff. The chaff, in my perception, being the primary ingredient for a jury: people without organizational affiliations, political opinions or troublesome consciences.

Came my turn to disclose, culminating with the clincher, that failsafe litmus test of bleeding hearts and ruthless avengers everywhere: "And I have numerous bumper stickers, which I can list if you really want."

"Yes, that would be helpful," smiled His Honor.

"Well, of most interest to the folks assembled here," I glanced at the prosecutor, "would be 'Robin Hood Was Right.'"

The entire courtroom burst into laughter. I quickly raised my voice above the din to qualify, "Now, of course that is to be understood in a larger political context ..." No use. Even the defendant (an alleged burglar) shook with mirth.

When the hilarity subsided, I worked my way through the rest, prompting snickers with each sticker. Perhaps FIJA would have told me to keep my mouth shut about my bumper gallery.

I finished with, "I have never served on a jury before." A beat later, I addressed the prosecutor with "Surprise!" and sat down to another round of laughter.

Big joke, but very sad. The crux of the matter is that because I have spent the better part of my adult life working for a more just society, I am almost automatically disqualified from serving on a body whose sole purpose is to determine justice.

Riding home, I pondered whether it had been foolish to work within the system for so many years, when the system seems to have so little concern for anything that resembles justice.

Maybe Robin Hood was right.

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