I've been fascinated by juries ever since seeing the movie 12 Angry Men when I was young. The film is about a murder, and a murder trial, but it doesn't show you those things. It waits until after the closing statements, and a decision has to be made regarding the defendant's innocence or guilt. It asks "what goes on" behind the closed doors during a jury's deliberations?
The movie has made me think a lot about the role of jurors in our justice system, and what it means to our government. The conclusion that I've come to is that being a juror is the closest a person can get to exercising their rights to live in a democracy.
How did I arrive at that position? We often view government as something that provides services to us, its citizens. We may be missing something when we think that way. We are not the government's customers; we are the government. We are the government when we vote, when we obey the laws, when we pay our taxes, when we allow others to represent us, when we exercise our freedom of speech, and when we run for office. By acknowledging government's existence, and allowing it to continue, we are the government. Another way of saying that is that government "governs at the consent of the people."
Our country is a democratic republic. There is room for contradiction by joining those two words together. A pure democracy calls for social justice and equality. A republic requires that laws are passed to keep the country together, and civic duty and sovereignty are called for. Sometimes the two concepts clash.
When you are a juror, you examine specific laws being applied to a particular person, or a business. You look at the facts of that case, and make a decision that can affect the life, liberty, or property of one or more people. By exercising your right to be a juror, you allow someone else the right to be judged by other people, not by some nameless, faceless government. By being a juror, you join in with others and decide whether a law is good or bad and whether that law is being applied correctly. Sometimes, you are even deciding whether the prosecutor is acting on behalf of the state, or on behalf of someone's personal agenda.
Sadly, the author of the movie 12 Angry Men died last Friday. I'm not bothered to say that a movie had a profound impact on the way that I think about government, and I'd like to thank Reginald Rose for the insight that he provided in this film.
An article by Delaware Attorney Kester Crosse in today's Wilmington News Journal is on the topic of juries in civil cases. A law is being considered by the State Legislature that would allow a decision by a super majority of jurors to stand as valid by the jury rather than an unanimous decision, as is required now. Mr. Crosse presents a well reasoned argument in favor of the legislation. Do I agree with him? I'm not certain. While the movie 12 Angry Men involved a criminal case rather than a civil one, I still can't help but think that if not for one juror playing devil's advocate, an innocent man would have been found guilty of a crime that he didn't commit.