A Trial By Jury

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.

6 Replies to “A Trial By Jury”

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  2. david.randall Post author

    Full-time out-of-state college students live in Massachusetts for at least eight months every year. They receive educational, economic, cultural, social, and aesthetic benefits from living in Massachusetts. Why shouldn’t the Commonwealth expect students to partake in a minimal civil obligation and serve on its juries?

    The trial court sent your summons for jury service months before the October 3 service date, before the October 3 trial docket was set. That court on that day could have just as easily been hearing a one-day criminal trial, or had such a light docket that it dismissed the jury pool before noon. Should jury administratros guess what kind of cases will be heard on a certain day and not summons an entire class of prospective jurors because they might not be able to serve?

    Before the jury system was revamped in the 1970s Massachusetts trial court jurors would sit for one month. This made it impossible for many to serve on juries and trial courts routinely excused them from service, resulting in juries comprised disproportionately of the retired, the unemployed, and others perhaps a step removed from the rhythms of everyday life. To remedy such unrepresentative juries Massachusetts adopted the One Day/One Trial system in which jurors serve for no more than one day or, if selected to a jury, for the duration of one trial. After sitting in a jury pool the state excuses a person from future jury service for three years.

    When Massachusetts adopted the One Day/One Trial system, it limited the reasons people could seek exclusion from jury service. Reducing the length of jury service also required increasing the number of people called as prospective jurors. Massachusetts juries now more accurately represent a cross-section of society, routinely containing lawyers, doctors, academics, business executives, and others who, in the past, might have claimed the demands on their time required excuse from service. A year after losing the 2004 presidential election John Kerry served on a jury in Suffolk County. The jurors did elect him to be foreman. [Jonathan Saltzman, “As Foreman, Kerry Wins Praise from Fellow Jurors,” The Boston Globe, Page B1, Nov-23-06]

    As for the judge taking FOREVER with his questions–if you were one of the litigants in this case, or the defendant in a criminal trial, I suspect you’d look differently at the judge’s care in talking to jurors.

  3. dpearl

    I don’t understand why they send out jury summons to full-time registered college students. I had to serve on Oct. 3 and I, along with about 130 other people, got called in for a 6-week civil trial where an autistic student was “abused” by a school somewhere near Boston and of course the plaintiffs were sueing everyone under the son and both sides had a million witnesses. I sat there from 8am until 4pm (with an hour for lunch) but I never even got called up for voir dire because they didn’t get to my number and the judge took FOREVER with his questions. At 4, the judge announced that it was time to go and anyone who hadn’t been called yet was free for 3 years as the remaining 3 jurors that needed to be picked would be selected from the next day’s jury pool.

    The part that doesn’t make sense though, is that since it was a 6-week trial the judge allowed anyone to basically disqualify themselves due to time-constraints, such as a certain sort of job or…um…being a full-time college student (and I’m sure some people lied). And everyone left who was obviously a college student was dismissed immediately (or practically immediately, after the judge had a 5 minute conversation about life with each student – one of my friends was called for the same trial which is how I know).

    I can understand maybe siphoning out students for day-long trials only, but what’s the point of sending summons to people who can’t serve no matter what? (And I also think there’s something wrong with sending summons to people who aren’t even permanent residents of the state but that’s probably besides the point.)

  4. david.randall Post author

    It’s a personal account, a trial memoir. Burnett relates the events as he remembers them and his reaction to them, aided by notes and journal entries he made at the time. He is serious-minded and details his internal struggle to understand his role as a juror and his relationship to the justice system.

  5. JesseR

    That book sounds really interesting – is it written in a dramatic style ala Grisham, or is it just a calmer, personal acount? My court obs paper from last semester was about voir dire actually. Also, I was looking on Wikipedia after reading this post, and I noticed that for several years in Japan, they let the defendant decide whether he/she wanted a jury trial or judge trial. Kind of interesting, in a choose-your-own fate kind of way.

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