Saturday, July 9, 2011

When Justice Doesn't Feel Like Justice

The Gilded Cage - Evelyn de Morgan
While discussing the DSK case, Katherine Mangu-Ward (Reason) and Erica Grieder (The Economist) have an interesting discussion of the philosophical uncertainty surrounding the court system, in particular the jury selection process.

I was reminded of my own experience as a juror.

A couple of years ago I served on a jury in a rape trial. I would certainly say it was one of the most profound experiences of my civic life. At the end of the process I had much more conflicting views about our legal system - not that it was necessarily flawed, I think it does a pretty good job considering. But it raised many philosophical issues for me, as well as a sad sense that serious mistakes can be made by well-intentioned people.

So, our case was a young woman accusing an older man of rape. They were both meth addicts, and by the end of the trial, neither seemed trustworthy in the slightest. The two had been "partying" for almost 2 days straight - going from house to house, cavorting with sketchy people, until finally ending up with another woman in a tiny, dilapidated auto trailer lit by an extension cord, its windows covered in tin-foil, where they smoked a bit of crack. Up until now the stories aligned, but it was at this point that it became a he-said, she-said.

She claimed he and the other woman raped her. He claimed it was consensual. She fled to a nearby fast-food place, called her boyfriend. He was upset with her for having been where she was. She then told him she was raped. They went to the ER, where the rape kit turned up nothing.

We deliberated for a couple of hours, and found him not-guilty. However, we almost unanimously agreed that he had probably done it. Yet we simply didn't feel we could say so beyond a reasonable doubt. It seemed just as likely that she was lying, considering her past behavior demonstrated in the testimony.

Did we do the right thing? I don't know. I feel like the question was exactly this: is it better to let a guilty man go free or to lock up an innocent man? If we were wrong, he would certainly be facing years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. I remember one female member of the jury breaking into tears. The defendant seemed perfectly capable of being a rapist, based on prior testimony, but there just wasn't any clear evidence that he had done so.

We walked solemnly back into the courtroom and almost hung our heads in shame. We did what made us uncomfortable, but that we felt was right. When it was over, we simply walked out into our normal lives, leaving the accuser behind, likely in sadness and anger.

So the question is this: what happens when a crime is committed. but there is no evidence? We kept looking for it, hoping to find something strong enough to back up our intuition. But there just didn't seem to be. And you can't convict someone based on intuition.

Adding to the vagueness and unease I felt was the sense also that I was unqualified to judge the case. Before we went into deliberation, we were read an enormously long and difficult to interpret series of instructions, many of which we were informed only applied in the state of California. I remember sitting in the deliberation room, wishing I could talk to the judge, to the lawyers, to the defender and the accused. But all of that is designed to be taken care of in testimony.

Would I have been more comfortable making my decision had I had legal training? Or possibly experience in forensics or rape cases? Probably, but maybe not. We were a jury of peers. I was elected foreman, and one of the jurors was seriously worried about losing his job if we deliberated too long. He wanted to hurry up and give a verdict after little discussion, because all he could think about was supporting his wife and child.

There was an air of inexpertise about our decision that really bothered me. The judge and lawyers seemed to have done an excellent job, yet ultimately it was in the hands of mere people off the street. I'm sure there are very good, considered reasons for this. But I'm no legal scholar. Neither am I a scholar of the philosophy of jurisprudence.

A mere citizen, I took the facts as I saw them. And I did my best to deliver a verdict for justice. Did I? I'll never be sure. __________________

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