Ditch the Jury, Do Justice

Giovanna Stern

We live in a society where we put value on justice, but what exactly does it mean to be just? Many people consider that our system is just because it assumes our innocence, provides counsel to those who cannot afford a lawyer, and prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. But can we say it is just to put innocent people in jail? Or is it just to discriminate against certain groups of people? Of course not—but these things happen in our current legal system. As concerned members of society, we need to evaluate the 6th Amendment’s right to an impartial jury in order to address these flaws in the system (Constitution). Our jury system needs to be eliminated because it inhibits our criminal justice system from achieving greater justice due to jurors’ lack of expertise; inherent discrimination that undermines the democratic value of a jury; lack of awareness or control over psychological factors; and some ineffective trial procedures.

Take a moment to consider the case of John White. White served more than 22 years in a cell, living a harsh, restricted lifestyle for a crime that he did not commit. He wasn’t released until an organization, The Innocence Project, investigated his case and proved his innocence. The crime he was accused of occurred when a man broke into an elderly woman’s home and beat, raped, and robbed her before fleeing the scene. At the scene, police collected skin and hair samples from the couch, but they were never tested for DNA for the trial. Some time later, the victim was presented with a lineup where she was “almost positive” that the offender was White. Because memory is constructive and not nearly as reliable as we’d like to believe, it is not the victim’s fault that she chose the wrong person in the lineup (Lichstein). Nevertheless, a jury found White guilty based on this unreliable but influential evidence. In the end, White was sentenced to life in prison for a crime that he had nothing to do with. It sounds like a distant, twisted nightmare, but to John White and many others this is their reality. In total, there have been more than 300 innocent people released from prison in the US simply due to properly examining DNA evidence (The Innocence Project).

Although there are multiple causes for wrongful convictions, many can be traced back to the inexperience of the jury. Currently it is estimated that “between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent.” That may appear to be a small number but that translates to between 46,000 and 100,000 innocent people in prison (Innocence Project). To a jury, the most influential piece of evidence is eyewitness identification (Lichstein). This is when the victim or another witness attempts to identify the offender in a lineup. Eyewitness identification also happens to be the “single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide” (The Innocence Project). This is mainly because memory is “not like a tape recorder,” but it is more malleable (Lichstein). When victims are presented with a lineup, they are pressured to pick an offender. Studies have shown that someone is more likely to choose the person that looks most like the offender rather than choosing no one at all (Lichstein). Byron Lichstein, from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, explains how the witness who identifies the “offender” is asked in front of the jury how confident they feel that the person who they identified is the real offender. More likely than not, their answer is 100% confident. The Innocence Project explains that this may be due to how actors in the system often encourage the witness on their identification by saying things like “good job, we thought that was the guy” or even by clapping (Lichstein). In short, a witness’s confidence can turn from partially confident when they first identify an offender to completely sure by the time they face the jury at the time of the trial.

False confessions are another cause of wrongful convictions (The Innocence Project). Many may question why anyone would ever plead guilty to a crime that they did not commit, but it happens more often than we think mainly due to interrogations. These interrogations “prey on psychological vulnerabilities” with hours of continual questioning and accusations until the suspect either truly begins to believe that they committed the crime or until they confess in order to be released from the stressful interrogation (Leo). Inexperienced jurors may fail to question the validity of eyewitness identifications or consider the possibility of false confessions, which can lead to punishing the innocent. Overall, punishing innocent people is too frequent a phenomenon for a society that puts an emphasis on justice.

In addition, psychological factors can have a negative effect on the reliability of a jury. It is known that people tend to favor the group to which they belong and often discriminate based on group membership. These groups include race, age, gender, religion and many more. A juror’s personal biases may affect the outcome of the trial. Psychology research at Harvard University emphasizes that jurors may not even be aware of their prejudices (Cromie). Social psychology also plays a role in influencing juries. The Asch Experiment concluded that people easily conform to the group, either because the group truly convinces them that their opinions are wrong, or because the individual fears the criticism that comes when they deviate from the group (McLeod). The experiment consisted of a group where everyone except for one person was aware of the experiment. The group was then presented with a simple visual matching task, and the people involved in the experiment were, at times, directed to pick answers that were clearly wrong. The researchers discovered that the actual participant would go against his or her own judgment and agree with the people who had already given clearly incorrect answers. This behavior is important to note because in a jury it is very unlikely for one person to challenge the opinions of others, even when that one person may be right. Both inherent prejudice and this tendency to conform may cloud a juror’s ability to make an impartial decision.

Many would agree with the American Bar Association when they say that “trial by jury is a vital part of our democracy,” but the discrimination in our current jury system seems to undermine this democratic value. This discrimination extends to both the juror selection process and the decisions jurors make once they are on a jury. An article in the Boston College Journal of Law and Justice explains a 2012 study done by the Equal Justice Initiative. The researchers found that prosecutors in Houston County, Alabama, removed “eighty percent of qualified African Americans” from jury selection (Weddell 458). In theory, I agree that the jury system epitomizes democratic values, but many fail to acknowledge that it overlooks the idea that jury selection is inherently biased. Although the “Supreme Court mandated […] that jurors represent a ‘fair cross section of the community,’ in reality it only draws from a pool of registered voters” (Weddell 459). By doing this, it potentially leaves out many people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or others who have not registered to vote. Ben Keller, a writer for The New York Times, focuses on the idea that the jury system is beneficial because it gives citizens an opportunity to be educated on the criminal justice system. However, he fails to understand that the cost of juries may be too great just so someone can “feel like a more dutiful member of society” (Keller).

There are many safeguards in place for keeping a jury as impartial as possible, but these often fail. One attempt to safeguard justice is to have twelve people make the decision as opposed to one judge. I have to disagree with Weddell that many people are more “capable of achieving a wisdom together that no one person is capable of achieving alone” (Weddell 486). She is resting that statement on the questionable assumption that quantity automatically equals quality. Even the process of the trial tends to limit the potential of the jury. As the fact finders of the court, one would think that juries could be allowed to take notes or ask questions to try to understand the case to the best of their ability, but these things are not allowed. Also, the judge is required to “instruct” the jury right before they leave to make their decision. This instruction is essentially extra information about the case or legal procedures. This practice should be helpful, but the instructions commonly consist of full-on legal jargon that ends up confusing the jury and thus the outcome of the trial. One criminal justice professor used the analogy that if you needed surgery, you wouldn’t just hand over instructions on how to perform the surgery to someone who is not a trained doctor.

For our legal system to function effectively without juries, we would need to instill more power into the judge’s role, because in our system, judges, and not juries, symbolize impartiality. Many people assume that a “jury can soften the rough edges of the law,” but studies have shown that “federal judges are more likely to acquit than juries” (Keller, Krause). Keller, in his The New York Times article, admits that there are even cases where a jury can be “razzle- dazzled by a skillful attorney or lost in the complications of evidence.” The law is complicated; that is why people dedicate years of their life to study it. Putting not just the law, but also someone’s life, in a jury’s hands is not a logical solution. I also agree with Keller that “judges are human too,” and they are not immune to these influences. Since a judge can make mistakes as well, I am proposing that there be a panel of judges to make an even greater step towards justice. I am not saying that judges are perfect, but we cannot overlook the fact that they have more experience than the typical juror. For example, they may be more familiar with organizations like The Innocence Project, and thus more likely to be aware of the potential for witnesses to identify an innocent person and or for innocent people to make false confessions. In the end, the judge should take over the role of the jury in our criminal justice system in order to create true justice.

Works Cited

American Bar Association. americanbar.org. N/A. Web. 16 Nov 2013.

Cromie, William. “Brain Shows Unconscious Prejudices.” Harvard Gazette, 17 July 2003. Web. 21 December 2013.

Keller, Ben. “A Jury of Whose Peers?” The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Krause, Jason. “Judge v. Jury.” abajournal.com. American Bar Association, 5 June 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2013

Leo, Richard A. “Miranda’s Revenge: Police Interrogation as a Confidence Game.” Law and Society Review. 30.2 (1996): 58-75. Print.

Lichstien, Byron. Lecture. 11 November 2013.

McLeod, Sam. “Asch Experiment.” Simply Psychology. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

The Innocence Project. innocenceproject.org. 2013. Web. 16 Nov 2013.

United States. “The Constitution of the United State.” archives.gov. N.D. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

Weddell, Hilary. “A Jury of Whose Peers?: Eliminating Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection Procedures.” Boston College Journal of Law and Social Justice 33:453 (Year): 453-486. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Instructor’s Memo

In our section of English 100, the Sequence 3 project was an extension of the student’s research in Sequence 2. Students wrote informative essays about an issue in Sequence 2 and then narrowed in on their own argument related to that issue in Sequence 3. The benefit of this structure is that each student becomes an expert on his or her chosen topic; the challenge is that students often have several sources from Sequence 2 that do not end up fitting into the Sequence 3 project. This was certainly the case for Giovanna, who researched the relationship between students and Madison police in her Sequence 2 project, and then found a related but different issue that she felt strongly about arguing in her Sequence 3 project. The evidence that Giovanna uses in this essay impresses me, but I am almost as impressed by how much research I know she left out. I think that one of the biggest challenges for writers can be cutting those sentences, paragraphs, or pieces of evidence that we have spent time and effort finding and writing when they turn out to be tangential or unnecessary for our final project. Giovanna accomplished this by including only those pieces of evidence that directly supported her argument about abolishing the jury system, resisting the urge to show her readers all the additional information she had about the justice system more broadly. This resulted in a focused and persuasive essay.

Another challenge for Giovanna in this project was making her argument accessible to her intended audience. Because she had spent a lot of time researching the topic and was taking a criminal justice class, she was comfortable with terminology and background knowledge that her classmates were not. The first draft of the essay was much more technical and might have been accessible to her criminal justice classmates but was difficult for an audience without that background to follow. When her English 100 peers brought this up, she had to think deeply about which audience she was trying to reach. Ultimately, she decided that she wanted to introduce this issue to an audience that was not already familiar with criminal justice scholarship, and so she changed the style and explained her evidence to make it more accessible. For me as an instructor, it was interesting to read the same argument written for two different audiences and to see how Giovanna changed her writing choices depending on how much prior knowledge her audience shared with her.

There are many things I admire about this essay, but what impresses me most is how challenging it is to me as a reader. Giovanna doesn’t make a safe or familiar argument that many people would already agree with. Instead, she argues against something that most of her readers (including me) take for granted and assume is good—the jury system. She challenges us to think differently about it, and presents strong evidence for why we should do so. This essay tries to persuade an audience, but it also represents Giovanna’s process of trying to figure one whether common sense is right or not. I enjoy reading this essay because it makes me think differently about familiar ideas.

—Jennifer Maclure

Writer’s Memo

This writing project was assigned around the time that my criminal justice class had three guest speakers. One of the speakers was in prison for more than ten years until The Innocence Project proved his innocence. In class, we had been learning about wrongful convictions and the role of the jury for quite some time, but it was an entirely different experience to hear the story come to life from someone sitting in front of you. After listening to the speaker, the topic for my paper became very clear to me. I was enrolled at the same time in an introductory psychology class where I learned about memory and perception, which also influenced my thinking for this paper. It was from these two classes that I drew the majority of my ideas. The writing process, however, was not as easy as deciding on a topic.

It is one thing to be passionate about what you’re presenting as a writer, but it is another thing to effectively argue for what you believe. One main struggle I had was keeping my audience in mind. The peer-review process was especially helpful in this area. My instructor and peers pointed out that I used a lot of the legal jargon that was fresh in my mind from my criminal justice class, without realizing the majority of my audience wouldn’t have had that legal background. For my final draft of this paper, I simplified my arguments and evidence for an audience that may not be familiar with the criminal justice system. Because my peers helped me to see that listing fact after fact can get pretty dry, I also included the specific case of John White to add more of an emotional appeal. During the revision process, to stay focused on my major points, I even narrowed down how much evidence I put into my paper. One main challenge that I came across was trying to figure out what exactly to simplify or remove completely to make the clearest argument without bringing in too many different ideas. Receiving feedback from my classmates allowed me to figure out which ideas were the most persuasive: for example, the John White case example, the surgery analogy from my professor, and some psychology principles. In the end, these revisions helped to express the overall two-fold purpose of my paper. First of all, I am trying to establish that there is something wrong with our current system. Second of all, and most importantly, I want to persuade my audience that eliminating the jury would lead to greater justice in our system.

— Giovanna Stern

Student Writing Award: Critical/Analytical Essay
This essay was previously published in the 9th edition of CCC.


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Ditch the Jury, Do Justice Copyright © 2019 by Giovanna Stern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.