The Blagojevich trial (and subsequent mistrial) has provided plenty of fodder for discussion among the press, the blogosphere and the nation in general. But it seems as though a bit of the madness that allows him to polish his hair using shoe-polish has seeped into the rest of the world as well. Take this Time article for instance, which uses the fact that the government was unable to convince 0.004% of the population of Chicago, to describe the ill that ails our criminal justice system: hung juries
After coming up with only a single conviction on 24 counts of corruption, federal prosecutors eager to send former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to prison will in January 2011 begin his second trial with what they hope will be a more effective strategy. What won’t change is the fact that the 12 jurors who will hear the case will be bound by the same ancient — and some argue outdated — rules for criminal juries that have changed just a little since King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.
So, just what are these “outdated” rules? Jury unanimity, juries not being allowed to take notes or ask questions and jurors not being permitted to discuss the case before all the evidence is complete.
I’ve written about the phenomenon of permitting jurors to ask questions during a trial before and I still disagree with the practice. But how bored are we with the concept of criminal trials – and how convinced are we that those who are arraigned, indicted and tried are guilty – that we are willing to forgo the simple notion that if society is going to convict, condemn and incarcerate on of its own, then it must be done only after a small representative sample of its members agree?
“Much of the elements of jury reform has reflected on the phenomenon of hung juries,” says Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard of the Indiana Supreme Court, a former trial judge in Evansville. “And what happened [in Chicago] is akin to what would have happened in most state courts 15 years ago — but wouldn’t happen in a great many places today.”
Even unanimity, the most cherished rule of all — and the one that spared Blagojevich on the charge that he tried to sell a seat in the U.S. Senate — is open for debate in the states. While the Supreme Court has insisted that federal criminal trials have a unanimous verdict, states have been permitted to experiment. Unless a defendant’s life is on the line, criminal juries in Oregon and Louisiana need only 10 votes or nine, respectively, to convict. “I describe this in general as treating jurors like adults,” says Shepard, who has helped lead major changes in Indiana but credits the states of Arizona and New York with giving momentum to jury reform. “We want to give them room to make decisions like adults typically make decisions.”
That quote made my head spin when I first read it and I’m not sure it’s stopped spinning yet. In other words, Justice Shepard, we can’t be bothered that the State’s evidence is so flimsy that it can’t convince 6 or 12 people of a man’s guilt, but heck, he’s probably guilty anyway, so we’ll take 5, because you really can’t account for that lone crazed juror.
Close enough for government work.
The underlying theme in this non-unanimity movement seems to be that mistrials are an inconvenience. An inconvenience to the court, to the prosecutors, to the staff and to everyone but the one person to whom a trial matters most: the defendant.
How are we to have faith in a system where you are tried by a large governmental entity, your guilt or innocence to be decided by a not-really representative portion of “your” community and then that very government tells the representative portion: it doesn’t matter if you all agree or not, as long as a majority does.
Most of these “reforms” seem to miss the fundamental (and cherished) aspects of our criminal justice system – save perhaps the one about note-taking, which seems like common sense. We require jurors to not deliberate until the end of evidence so they don’t make up their minds in advance, so they can be fair and balanced and consider all the evidence in its entirety. We don’t permit them to ask questions during testimony because it isn’t their burden to prove or disprove anything at all. It is the State’s burden and their burden alone. Jurors are not investigators; they’re arbiters of evidence.
And we ask for unanimity in their decision making because that unanimity reflects the soundness of the decision to prosecute an individual. A conviction and subsequent incarceration is one of the harshest actions taken by the abstract Government against its citizens. If we can’t get a miniscule portion of the citizens that it purports to represent to agree on the guilt of a man, then the government has failed.
It may be close enough for government work, but when it comes to justice, there should be no such thing.