Having spent the better part of the past two weeks watching an excruciatingly long jury selection for a capital murder case, I’m left wondering — is it time for the United States to begin using professional jurors?
During the past couple of weeks, I watched intently as prospective jurors took the stand to explain to the court the financial hardship that leaving work to judge another would bring to their lives. Some of them work for employers who grant paid leave for jury duty, but often it covered only a day or two. Many others worked for struggling small businesses or are self-employed, and they explained that every day they didn’t show up at work was lost profit or a day’s pay docked off their paycheck.
The questioning of the jurors — called voir dire — to determine their suitability to serve was emotional and sometimes embarrassing. Yet many of those who were hoping hard not to be picked told the judge they recognized their civic duty and felt badly that they were unable to serve.
Besides harsh financial hardships to jurors in this economically topsy-turvy time, there is the issue of lay people trying to decipher intricate legal language and instructions. For the most part, today’s jurors have no training in the law and wouldn’t know a dictim from a disjunctive allegation. They’re given a super-crash course in the law applicable to their particular case, but overall, the system isn’t friendly.
During trial, jurors aren’t allowed to pass a note to the judge or raise their hands to ask a question if they don’t understand something. And, let’s admit, for most of us, much of what lawyers say in court is mumbo jumbo. In addition, some states don’t allow jurors to take notes in court or to have a copy of their instructions in the deliberation room. They are often put into that deliberation room with no idea of how to even begin to talk about a verdict.
Add to this confusing realm the possibility that panelists might be exposed to grisly crime scene or autopsy photos of tiny children. In rare trials, they will be asked to vote on whether the defendant should be put to death for the crime they committed. Some people can take the strain and bounce back from judging others, while some citizens come away shell-shocked.
All in all, jury duty is an awesome responsibility, and it’s been known to literally change the lives of those who serve.
I can’t help thinking there might be a better, less intrusive way for all of us to have access to fair, impartial and educated panels to hear court cases, from murder and medical malpractice cases to charges against organized drug kingpins or corporate fraudsters.
Now, if you’re thinking professional jurors wouldn’t constitute a “jury of your peers,” realize that nowhere in our U.S. Constitution are we promised that. We are not guaranteed a panel that looks just like us: Barbie the teacher, Bob the carpenter or Diane the journalist. The Constitution simply assures American citizens a “right of trial by jury.”
So who’s to say that jury can’t be a group of people whose occupation is that of professional juror? The requirement could be for them to take a one- or two-year study course before being assigned to hear cases. Courts would save the paltry daily sums they pay jurors and put it in a pot to help pay these pros a living wage.
Another idea that’s been floated is for retired judges, lawyers or law professors to serve as jurors, as they are already fully schooled in the ways of the courtroom. Critics of this idea worry that these legal-eagles will overthink the cases they hear or exert undue influence over other professional jurors of lesser status.
Look, nothing is perfect. Certainly our current system is not, as we see in the increasing number of cases overturned when new DNA evidence is found. So isn’t it time to take a serious and investigative look at ways that might make it better?
I ran the idea of turning retired legal types into jurors by a dear friend of mine. He startled me with the question: What percentage increase in the conviction rate do you think there would be with professional jurors? He believes the legal fraternity would act like judges as well as jurors in their minds and predicted the conviction rate would jump considerably.
I’m not so sure. But then again, neither is anyone else — because we’ve never fully tested the idea.
I just remember the haunted looks I’ve seen on the faces of many jurors I’ve encountered during my career covering court cases. Some have told me in post-trial interviews they found it hard to concentrate in the unfamiliar territory of a courtroom. During proceedings, they worried about jobs, family and their peace of mind.
If there are other citizens better suited for this job, people who could more keenly focus on the job at hand, don’t we owe it to everyone involved in the system to try it out?