The American judicial system has always insisted on the jury system despite the changes taking place in the developed world. 90% of the jury trials take place in the United States and most European countries do not understand why the American public is fascinated by jury trials. “Does the U.S. system carry the seeds of its own demise, as in other nations that once used juries widely and gradually replaced them with decisions by judges” (Vago, 2008, p 48)? The answer to this question can be found by exploring the historical roots of jury trials and how the American legal system inherited this practice from their previous colonial master, England. History of the Jury System During the medieval times, 12 free and lawful men were usually summoned by each community to help the king in deciding the course of justice. “For centuries these panels based their decisions on what they knew of local wrongdoing” (McLynn, 1989, p 89). For centuries the standard moral code for the community was decided by the decisions of the 12 panelists. As England was evolving into a democratic society, it became clear that the jurors’ decisions were being influenced by the neighborhood gossip. “By the time the American legal system absorbed the British model, U.S. jurors were admonished to ignore anything they might know about the case and decide the facts solely on the evidence presented in court” (Rawlings, 1999, p 55). In the British system, the jury trials were seen as potential buffers against any harsh decisions that may be handed down by the king. The jurors added some element of “civility” to the process, unlike in the past where the determination of guilty and the level of punishment to be handed down were solely decided by the king. Furthermore, the jury proved to be extremely resourceful especially during the bloody code when death penalties were handed to even the pettiest of crimes.
The bloody code refers to a period in 17th century England where the death penalty was mandated in almost all manner of crimes in a bid to curb the rising crime levels. Some of the more “absurd” criminal offenses that warranted the death penalty included stealing horses or sheep, destroying turnpike roads, cutting down trees, unmarried mothers concealing a stillborn child, stealing from a rabbit warren etc. The driving force behind the implementation of such stiff penalties was the unsympathetic nature of the rich and affluent society in Britain. Since the rich made the laws, they enacted the laws that protected their interests. “With time, the British juries softened the impact of this by acquitting defendants or finding them guilty of lesser crimes” (McLynn, 1989, p 91). The Jury System in America Comparing the role of juries in America to their counterparts in Britain during this era, America viewed trial by jury as a buffer against oppressive prosecutions by their British colonial masters. The turning point proved to be in the 18th century when American publisher John Peter Zenger was found not guilty by a New York jury on the charge of criticizing a governor appointed by the British king (Honor©, 1995, p 112). This created an early momentum for freedom of press such that by the time the country got its independence, the right to a fair trial (by jury) was an attribute expected by every citizen. When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, it stated that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” (Rawlings, 1999, p 58). The right to jury trials was also extended to civil cases.
According to television journalist Fred Graham, America continues to be fascinated by jury trials because of the immense power that jurors yield when deciding the guilt or innocence of a citizen. Even though they are simple average citizens, jurors appear to stand above this sovereign nation and they determine if a state should punish or not punish its citizens.
The jury system has it flaws and it’s no more perfect than the entire legal system or the democratic government. However, it gives the US citizens a feeling of representation in the judicial process and they can aim for when creating an even more perfect union which represents the diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds in America. The diversity of the American population later proved to be the Achilles heel of the jury system. The race issue in America elicits strong reactions, more so during the selection of jurors. Traditionally, both the prosecution and defense were granted equal weight in jury selection but some prosecutors overplayed their strikes, referred to as peremptory challenges, and removed African American jurists whom they believed were biased towards favoring defendants in criminal trials.
The practice was curbed by the Supreme Court and the level of “all-race” representation in jury trials has increased. Even though the system is not yet perfect and there still exists some elements of racism and prejudice, a majority of the diverse ethnic groups and races are of the opinion that jury trials offer the best form of justice. America’s Preference for Jury Trials “An interesting statistic is 29% of adult Americans have served on a jury and most of them believe their service turned them into better citizens” (Honor©, 1995, p 118). In America trial by jury has moved from a right to representation for all guilty parties to an essential prerequisite in this free society. From the days of their forefathers, an average American understands that the main advantage of a jury trail is it safeguards all defendants from tyranny and excesses by the state. Even William Blackstone, a famous English commentator, went against the norms in his country and lamented that trial by jury is a palladium of our legal rights (Honor©, 1995, p 118). Even though trial by judges is a common practice in a majority of democracies across the globe (especially in former British colonies), America has remained steadfast on jury trials and the assumption is the determination of guilt or innocence is too big of a task to be shouldered by experienced judges. Lawyers have always been viewed as a corruptible group of individuals but such viewpoints have never been extended to judges.
However, they are human, just like lawyers, and some of them have been linked to bribery allegations involving criminal elements. Allegations of judicial corruption do exist in America and even though most lawyers won’t admit it, some judges are also corrupt if one looks at the biases they may have towards specific prosecutors. This trend has been witnessed in judges who have assumed their new roles on the bench after a long and illustrious career as prosecutors. Such judged may inadvertently favor the prosecution, either implicitly or explicitly, and preside over a case in a manner which works against the defense. In countries which haven’t adopted jury trials, a judge can easily issue a ruling which favors a particular side and the only checks or balances against such excesses originate from the same chambers he serves in. In contrast jury tampering is a bit more demanding and obtaining a biased ruling isn’t as easy as Hollywood makes it. The task of jury tampering is further hampered by the nature of jury composition. Both the prosecutor and the defense are given equal opportunities (and strikes) to select their jurists. “Furthermore, the composition of the jury is unknown until the time of the trial” (Rawlings, 1999, p 62). Adding to this, jury service is usually a short-term engagement and this makes it even more difficult to establish a corrupt relationship with the jurors (Rawlings, 1999, p 62). Judges have vehemently resisted all allegations of being corruptible and the few that were caught in the act are simply isolated cases.
There is some element of truth in this statement since very few judges fit into the criteria of accepting cash/gifts inorder to sway their ruling, unlike lawyers. However, the Achilles heel of judges is after a long tenure of service, they begin acting like government bureaucrats. “They become so encrusted within the mindset of laws, rules and regulations that they are unable to distinguish law from justice” (Vago, 2008, p 42). Referring to the constitution of democratically elected governments across the globe, the judiciary is independent from the executive and legislature. The job of drafting laws rules and regulations is left to the legislature and it’s the role of the law enforcement officials to uphold these laws. The lawyers on the other hand are supposed to interpret the law and represent their respective clients (the defendant or the state) to the best of their abilities but within the confines of the law. Judges who’ve served for long periods of time are unable to distinguish between interpreting the law and ensuring that the defendant gets a just ruling. This folly is usually witnessed in authoritarian regimes where judges take it upon themselves to uphold the law and supersede the mandate of the police and even the prosecutor. Jury trails in America are criticized for being too long and the media circus which follows is an unwanted attention that most foreign judges do not understand.
The slow and mundane process of explaining the facts to the jury has the advantage of limiting a judge’s excesses and every ruling made must incorporate the decision of the jury. The problem of judges acting like government bureaucrats also exists in America but such excesses are also checked by the jury system.
The advantage that a jury has is it’s composed of ordinary Americans and they have a layman understanding of the law; they may not understand the law to the same extent as lawyers or judges but their sole purpose is to ensure that justice was served. “Jurors are more likely to ask the deeper and more profound questions when faced with whether to permit the government to punish the defendant” (Honor©, 1995, p 115). Is the defendant aware of his wrongdoings and if so, should the jury let him walk even though it’s evidently clear he committed the crime? Such are the questions which juries debate on and unlike judges; they are allowed to look at the shades of gray when interpreting the law. Judges on the other hand aren’t allowed to acquit a suspect after it’s clear that he’s committed a crime; it’s not a judge’s job to debate on whether the crime committed by the accused was just. A judge will simply sentence the accused after proving guilt and determine the extent of punishment that should be handed down. As previously mentioned, juries have added some element of civility to the legal process and the best example is comparing today’s jury system to the bloody code era in 17th century England. The bloody code was a group of laws which prescribed the death penalty to over 200 separate offenses. Such was the brutality of the system in those times that most prisoners usually exhibited the utmost indifference to their fate, and appeared to entertain no fear for the consequences of their guilt.
Prisoners as young as 14 years were hanged by the neck until they died and thousands of people thronged public squares to see these executions. Historical records have indicated that the youngest prisoners ever executed in Britain were Michael Hammond and his sister Ann. They were aged 7 and 11 respectively. They were hanged on 28th September 1708 for theft. It can be argued that comparing the bloody code to today’s jury system is a bit of overkill. However, the American jury system evolved from the British system which had to incorporate the role of the jury inorder to tone down the excesses of the bloody code. Therefore, even if all former British colonies (and other nations) aren’t adapting a jury system, it’s clear that their current legal procedures are a lot more civilized because of the actions of the “12 free and lawful men” who gave birth to the jury system. Another aspect that shouldn’t be forgotten is a jury’s verdict is final; Courts around the world can overturn a judge’s ruling by issuing injunctions but the jury’s verdict is considered sacred. “That is, no matter how the jury rules, there is nothing either the judge or the prosecutor can do to change or modify the verdict” (Vago, 2008, p 47). The best example of this phenomenon was a case in Laredo Texas in 1960 when a man was arrested for possessing marijuana with intent to distribute.
When the defendant took to the stand, he tearfully confessed on how he needed the money to support his family which was going through financial difficulties. The federal judge and prosecutor were shocked when the jury returned a “Not Guilty” verdict. Unable to contain himself, the judge went on a rampage and screamed at the jurors, “stating that they were the dumbest people to have ever served on a jury in his courtroom and advised them that their names would be permanently stricken from the federal jury rolls in Laredo” (Rawlings, 1999, p 63). The defendant walked away from the court a free man. Who is to blame in this situation? The jury for not seeing a criminal for who he really is or the prosecutor for not being able to prove beyond reasonable doubt a rather obvious conviction? The only sure thing is the system is not at fault. Conclusion The right to a fair trail and the opportunity to plead for the court’s mercy is right that every American knows he or she deserves.
The defendant mentioned above got his day in court and pleaded his case, but a bit too excessively. While letting a guilty man walk might leave a foul taste in the mouths of many legal academicians, it’s a low price to pay when compared to denying an innocent man his day in court and sentencing him without hearing his side of the story. The bloody code proved how an ass the law can be when too much power is wielded by the state.
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