Jury Summons

Jury Summons

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Double-Edged Oughtness

One of the recurring themes with juries is that jurors desire to uphold justice and follow the law.  After reviewing the results of several interviews with former jurors, I noticed that almost all the jurors felt strongly about the importance of the role of the jury, and acknowledged the seriousness with which they approached their civic duty.  While taking one’s civic duty seriously is certainly beneficial, such dedication can result in juror misconduct.

An inherent dedication to upholding the law and performing one’s civic duty seems like a characteristic that plaintiffs and defendants alike would seek in a prospective juror.  However, unfavorable legal outcomes can result from even the best of intentions.  For example, the motivation to research a defendant’s criminal history could just as easily stem from a juror’s desire to serve justice as from sheer curiosity.  Unfortunately, an altruistic motivation behind misconduct does nothing to mitigate the effect of such misconduct.

In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of California reversed a jury verdict in the penalty phase because one of the jurors discussed mercy, empathy, and responsibilities as a citizen with his pastor.  (The Court's discussion of the juror misconduct begins on page 37 of the opinion).  Although the juror did not discuss any facts of the case, the advice he received from the pastor was inconsistent with the jury instructions. 

I observed from the record that the juror’s genuine desire to do what was morally right never diminished.  The juror continually answered the court’s questions honestly, and seemed eager to help facilitate justice.  There was an almost childlike earnestness in the juror’s responses to the court’s questions.  Although I now understand this type of dedication to be common among jurors, I still have difficulty reconciling this phenomenon with my view that humans are self-serving by nature.

Do certain situations trigger a heightened sense of morality?  This case involved capital punishment and a religious juror, but this same type of dedication can be found in non-religious jurors deciding cases involving much less severe penalties.  One reason could be that jurors do not gain or lose anything by rendering their verdict.  A juror only risks his or her own moral conscience by participating in the adjudication process.  While everyone wants a clear conscience, many will sacrifice their own mental health to reap external rewards or avoid external penalties.  I posit that people will most likely choose a clear conscience over a guilty conscience when all external consequences are removed from the decision-making process.

Another phenomenon that may explain this ubiquitous juror dedication is that people are uniquely able to put aside their differences when fighting a common enemy.  Groups that previously argued over the color blue are able to stand united against injustice.  Many people attribute this sense of justice to societal or familial values, while others cite a god or religion as the source.  Whatever its source may be, people agree that justice is good and necessary and that everyone deserves it.  In this respect, perhaps the notion of justice for all is the last true societal axiom.

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