Our jury system aims to give defendants a fair trial before a willing jury of their peers. In reality, jury selection tends to be biased, and jury duty is about as popular as paying taxes. In a free country, citizens should not be forced to participate i n civic proceedings if they are unable or unwilling to do so.
Ideally, legal decisions affecting the freedom or even the lives of defendants should not be left to unqualified amateur jurors whose decisions can be subtly manipulated by lawyers. It's time to dump our archaic jury system and hand the job over to qualif ied professionals.
Many European countries including France have no jury system. Instead, cases are decided by judges, whose profession demands that they be fair and impartial. I have no problem at all with this concept. I am concerned, however, about the fairness of a syst em like our own, where attorneys usually participate in the process of final jury selection. An attorney's job is to be strongly biased on behalf of a client. This being the case, they should be firmly denied any role in selecting jurors.
The involvement of attorneys in jury selection transforms the phrase "a fair trial with a jury of peers" into a contradiction of terms. My dictionary defines a "peer" as "a person who is the equal of another in abilities, qualifications, age, background o r social status." In other words, a jury truly consisting of a defendant's peers would have a uniform, and therefore biased, outlook.
For example, public objections to the jury's verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial centered on the fact that the jury predominantly shared Simpson's racial background. Nonetheless, attorneys are often quick to exercise their right of "preemptory strike" to di tch any juror whose background seems dangerously at variance with that of their clients. Jurors are questioned closely: Which magazines do you subscribe to? What are your group affiliations? Even the bumper stickers on your car are checked out.
To show how this biased selection process might work, imagine a Republican politician on trial for shady real-estate dealings. Now place me in the pool of potential jurors. Through questioning, the defense attorney establishes the fact that: a) I have mar ked liberal leanings, b) I dislike big business, and c) I care about the environment. Don't bother looking at the next picture. It shows me on my way out the door. My dismissal increases the likelihood that the defendant will be acquitted.
Ironically, the screening process designed to ensure the fairness of a jury has produced the opposite effect. Of course, it would be difficult for a rape victim to give an unbiased verdict in a rape case, as it would be for a victim of a drunken driver to make a decision in a DUI case. Clearly, these jurors must be excused. But the fact is, jurors are not always culled for acceptable reasons, and the result of a jury trial can be influenced in ways that would not be possible in European-style judicial pro ceedings.
Aside from the selection process, the jury system still remains far from ideal. Busy citizens resent being called for jury duty. Some deliberately maneuver to get rejected. Others, although willing to perform their "civic duty," lack the education that wo uld enable them to follow a complicated argument or form a coherent opinion. These jurors may simply follow the majority when it comes time to vote on a verdict.
As it stands, the jury system is inherently flawed, and it disrupts the lives of hundreds of already maxed-out citizens every day. A panel of elected, professional judges could only be an improvement, but many people view the idea with suspicion. They see the idea as dangerously innovative and suspect that the decisions of a group of elected justices would lack integrity and credibility.
However, we do already have an institution that is run on quite similar lines to those I describe. Its decisions have traditionally been highly respected, despite the fact that they are reached without the assistance of a jury. It's known as the U.S. Supr eme Court, and it works surprisingly well.
Kaye Patchett is a senior majoring in English. Her column, 'On Reflection,' appears every other Wednesday.