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A jury of my peers my ass

By Sparky | March 20, 2008

In the spirit of civic duty I’ve spent the last two days serving for the King County jurors pool. So far I’ve been a potential juror on two separate trials but have been excused from both. Once both of those trials are over I’ll write up more of my experiences in the jury selection process, but until that point it would be against the law for me to post details. For now my reading public will have to be satisfied with these thoughts from my days in the Halls of Ultimate Justice:

Overall I’m coming away from the experience disenchanted. I love the concept of trial by jury and think that in a perfect world it’s the most ideal way to try people – until of course artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough to be able to lend its services as a truly impartial and objective judge. However in the real world the United States implementation is more than slightly flawed.

The key problem comes from the legal promise of “a jury of peers”. Back when the United States was founded this was possible to provide given that society in general in the colonies was more or less equal. Unfortunately in the intervening centuries our society has been ripped asunder with the creation of four classes: lower, middle, upper, and the ultra-rich ‘ruling class’. As much as some would like to deny that this would effect the judicial system it does – the ultra-rich almost never go to trial thanks to the fleet of lawyers they employ, and the other three classes are unlikely to get a true jury of their peers.

As the social divide increases the concept of a jury of peers becomes more and more diluted. For instance if I was ever erroneously accused of a crime and sent to trial my experiences here have taught me that I would likely not get a true jury of my peers for the trial. I would be far more likely to get a jury of people either too disenchanted to want to serve their civic duty yet unable to get out of it, or too listless and unmotivated to have a good case for undue hardship to get out of the jury pool. Most of the people I see getting selected for juries are unemployed, retired, or from jobs where they are one of many people on a constantly changing team of replaceable people.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m all for civic duty and want to fully support the legal system, but my experiences here have shown me that change is needed to make for a system that is fair for all that end up trudging through it – guilty or innocent, rich or poor alike.

As far as I can see there are two potential fixes to this flawed implementation of the trial by jury system:

  1. Change the term “a jury of your peers” to “a jury of citizens”. To do this properly the rules for jury selection would have to change significantly. Currently a computer selects potential jurors who are then vetted by the judge and lawyers which by definition results in a slanted jury. To fix this the computer should instead pick 12 random people who would be required to serve on the jury – no exceptions, no exclusions. This would result in a reasonable cross section of society with (in a purely theoretical statistical sense) no bias
  2. Actually implement “a jury of peers” for the accused. To do this a computer could still be involved in the selection process, but it could by definition not be random. To truly select a group of someones peers their profession, neighborhood, intelligence, financial information race, and general social position. Again once suitable jurors are selected the lawyers likely should not be allowed to reject potential jurors except in extreme cases when a juror could be proven to be overly-biased. Unfortunately this second approach would likely increase bias in the jury panel to acquit or find a verdict of not guilty, but at least that verdict would truly come from a selection of the accused peers.

In either of these cases one key element must also be changed: the compensation. Currently jury duty in Washington State pays a $10 per day stipend. This is unfortunately a valid reason for people to resent their civic duty – anyone making from minimum wage all the way up to the ultra rich has a reason to be insulted by this token gesture.

A more fair approach would be to either pay a percentage of the jurors normal salary (100% is not necessary, but perhaps 50% or 70% would be a fair approach), or require employers to pay for jury duty at a normal rate while removing the state compensation entirely. Both of these would cause financial burden (either to the state, or to employers) but would significantly reduce the bias introduced to juries by financial hardship.

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