Reading about juries while serving on a jury

This blog is, in part, about a book, The Jury & Democracy, which we wrote to share the findings of our research on the jury experience. All along, we’d hoped the book would find its way into the hands of jurors themselves. It didn’t occur to us, though, that it might be read during jury service.

This has apparently now happened. Political scientist John Pitney recounts doing just that on his blog about his textbook, which frames American politics in the language of deliberative democracy. Pitney writes,

In The Jury and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2010), John Gastil, E. Pierre Deess, Philip J. Weiser and Cindy Simmons confirm Tocqueville’s observations. Drawing on in-depth interviews, systematic surveys of jurors, and public records, they show that jury service can affect how citizens view themselves and their government, and can sometimes increase voter turnout. It also sparks changes in media use, political action, and community involvement.

Last week, I served on a jury at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Centerin downtown Los Angeles. It was indeed an educational experience. During the orientation, a judge told prospective jurors about her visit to post-apartheid South Africa, where she taught local officials about the American jury system. The South Africans, she said, were surprised that the United States does not have different classes of jurors, that a random group of citizens might deal with a simple theft or a complex case of securities fraud. In the latter kind of case, she added, attorneys bear the burden of making the facts and law accessible to the non-experts serving on the jury.

In the end, he and his jurors have an all-too-common experience, one of rendering the right verdict but feeling no satisfaction with doing so, in spite of the quality of the proceedings and the deliberation. The problem is, sometimes deliberating well results in a decision that’s still an unhappy one. He writes,

In the end, we decided that that defendant was guilty on both counts. There was no sense of triumph, no feeling of “we got him!” He was apparently homeless, and had no friends or family in court. When he stood up to hear the verdict, we could see the tag on the suit that the county had bought for him. He cried when he heard the verdict of guilty. We all felt very sorry for him, since his rough life would now get even worse. But we had no reasonable doubt about his guilt.
At the end, the judge thanked us for our service, and spoke about the importance of the jury in the United States. He noted that it was a form of direct democracy. That comment related to the closing chapter of The Jury and Democracy, which compares the jury system with initiative elections and explains why juries provide for much better deliberation.

So, hopefully that’s not the last case of reading our book simultaneous to jury service. But if it is, we’re still honored it happened at least once.

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About jgastil

John Gastil is Head and Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in political deliberation and group decision making.
This entry was posted in Deliberation on juries, Social/political impact of juries, Verdicts juries reach. Bookmark the permalink.

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