I’ve never served on a jury. I’ve come no closer than voir dire and that only once, on a sexual assault case in which defense counsel rejected me. I know of at least 30 students who’ve been called for jury duty since January, yet I’ve not received a jury summons in at least eight years. I’m quite curious about what it would be like to participate on a jury. Recently I experienced it vicariously.
The vehicle for my jury experience was the audio book of A Trial by Jury, D. Graham Burnett’s account of his service as a juror on a New York City murder trial. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics and deliberations of one particular jury. Burnett is an academic historian who finds himself elevated to jury foreman shortly before jury deliberations begin. His brief and entertaining summary of the trial testimony sets the stage for the heart of the book, the days of discussion, argument, high emotion, and drama that constituted the deliberations.
Burnett states up front that the book is his personal account of what happened on the jury: he did no independent investigation of the evidence and interviewed none of the other jurors. He acknowledges that the other jurors would have quite different stories of how they arrived at their verdict. Viewing this jury trial through his eyes is a revelation. He’s an articulate and exceeding thoughtful–had I been a fellow juror I might have found him maddeningly thoughtful–stranger in a strange land. He began the experience as a legal naif (he studies the history of science) and we learn as he learns.
Burnett doesn’t preach. His stated goal is to turn the trial, the testimony, the jury’s contentious arguments over the defendant’s guilt, into a “text” (his word) that one can return to, again and again, to find meaning. He succeeds. This is an excellent read (or listen–Burnett read the audio book edition) for any one interested in the criminal justice system, or the ways in which non-lawyers understand and engage with the law.
Burnett succeeds in part because of his honesty. I give away neither the story’s tension or its ending if I reveal that Burnett decides early in the trial that a hung jury is his goal. Each time he repeated this goal my frustration increased. As smart as he is, Burnett never seemed aware that ending the trial with a hung jury would pass the buck, most likely putting the expense and burden of deciding the defendant’s guilt on another trial and another jury. Burnett writes that “[a] hung jury would turn our jury duty into a symposium, an intensive discussion group, an interpretive seminar . . . It would mean something different to everyone, like art.” Like art? LIKE ART? Every tiime he wrote in this vein I nearly drove off the road. Yet this is why A Trial By Jury succeeds. As the jury proceeds to its verdict Burnett reasons his way to profound insights about the nature of law and justice, insights that shape the jury’s result. He tells his story honestly and leaves to his readers the search for its meaning.