Hurray for all of you who have served on a jury

Juries often get no respect. Their decisions are second-guessed and vilified wherever people gather to discuss the latest big trial.

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A jury box in a federal court room in Chicago.

Sun-Times file photo

I have never heard anyone shout, “Hurray, I just got notified to report for jury duty.”

People in the office don’t slap colleagues on the back for the honor they have received.

Yet, serving on a jury is one of the two greatest responsibilities of citizenship in the United States, the other being the right to vote.

Many times, I have heard people say, “I don’t register to vote because that’s how they choose people for jury duty.”

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In a simple sentence they have rejected both powers uniquely bestowed upon them by our Republic to check the authority of government and protect the rights of fellow citizens.

I am not sure how it happened that so many people began to perceive their roles as overseers as a form of punishment. After all, instead of rich folks, government officials and influential insiders deciding whether ordinary people should be sent to prison or even sentenced to death, we have juries. We give that authority to our peers.

People tend to think of murder trials when they think of juries, whether it’s a real-life trial, as in the case of former police officer Derek Chauvin, accused of killing George Floyd, or a fictional trial, like on TV’s “Law and Order.”

But ordinary citizens, sitting on juries, rule in all kinds of legal matters. They make the call in cases involving racial discrimination, sexual harassment, labor relations, corporate pollution and public corruption.

“Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty,” John Adams once stated. “Without them we have no fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hogs.”

Yet juries seem to get no respect. Their decisions are second-guessed, overturned and vilified wherever people gather to discuss the latest trial that has grabbed the public’s attention.

Twelve strangers are called together and expected to reach unanimous agreement in hours or days on some complicated matter that may involve contradictory evidence offered by medical, technical and legal scholars.

And if it’s a criminal matter, they must all agree on a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Consider the difficulty of that standard.

Ask 12 people what restaurant has the best hamburgers, or to name the greatest basketball player of all time. You won’t ever get everyone to agree, no matter how many billions of burgers a restaurant has sold or how clear the choice is Michael Jordan.

Is there a reasonable doubt? Yes, even about Jordan.

The system depends on rules of evidence. The jury directions given by a judge. The skills of the attorneys and the money available to the prosecution and the defense.

And an obviously just verdict can be overturned on appeal on the basis of a legal technicality.

It all seems so complicated. So fragile. So unfair and hard to understand.

Jury verdicts are not perfect. Neither are jurors. They can be biased, racist or bribed.

It sometimes takes courage to serve on a jury. There is great pressure from friends, relatives, members of your church, your bosses at work and the news media. Even congressmen may weigh in.

Yet, without the courage of jurors, who would protect the powerless against the powerful?

A colleague of mine once told a judge that he could not serve on a jury because he did not have the ability to sit in judgement of another human being.

But the judge made one last appeal. “You are exactly the type of person we need,” he explained, “someone who comprehends the weighty responsibility of making a decision that could impact the lives of others.”

The judge’s plea had no effect.

My co-worker returned to the office and joyfully announced he had stuck by his guns and was dismissed.

Hurray for the people who have sat on the George Floyd jury. Cheers for all of you who have done jury duty, taking on that burden for all of us. Thank you for your service.


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