Justice system needs competent jurors

Published: Monday | April 30, 2012 Comments 0

Glenn Tucker, Contributor

The Gleaner's comments on the jury system are long overdue. Many will insist that it is our most direct form of participatory democracy.

But I have real concerns. The only qualification for jury duty in Jamaica is that one be on the voters' list. I find that frightening.

Your editorial mentioned Thomas Jefferson speaking in glowing terms about the jury system. But that comment was made under very uncomplicated conditions and before the exhilarating winds of the Industrial Revolution had crossed the Atlantic. Visionary though he was, if Jefferson heard a delivery by Steve Jobs about the creation of the iPod, he would declare Jobs stark staring mad. Times have changed.

Imagine a complex system of rules and procedures that are well rehearsed and understood by professionals in the field of law. Some persons - picked, lottery style, from a voters' list - are thrown into these conditions. They would, in all likelihood, find things complicated and obtuse.

They are expected to sift through conflicting evidence, arguments, presentations, exhaustive jury instructions that have concepts and language unfamiliar to them. The word 'bond' may be used: the legal minds interpret this to mean a written evidence of debt issued by a company, while the juror is thinking of something that binds or fastens.

Someone may mention a 'brief': the attorneys are talking about a written legal argument in a format prescribed by the courts, while the poor juror is wondering what relevance underwear has to the case.

Then, finally, it's time for deliberations. The juror must recall vast amounts of trial evidence, understand and apply these instructions and arrive at an 'appropriate' verdict.

But how do jurors decide what is an appropriate verdict? By what process do they evaluate and use the trial evidence in reaching decisions?

Getting it wrong

A Northwestern University study appearing in the July (2007) Journal of Empirical Legal Studies revealed that jurors in criminal cases are often getting it wrong. In a set of 271 cases from four areas, juries gave wrong verdicts in at least one out of every eight cases.

As a former statistician, I must caution that the numerical findings should not be generalised to broader sets of cases. But serious studies are needed here.

It would seem that the most powerful determinant of a juror's verdict in both civil and criminal cases is the strength of the competing evidence. Several studies have confirmed that the litigant that presents the strongest case is likely to prevail. Translated into English, this means that the person who can pay for the better lawyer is likely to win.

All things being equal, it is nice to know that one is playing one's part in this important process, but shouldn't one be competent so to do?

Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and glenntucker2011@gmail.com

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