Our Legal System Today: How and Why We Got Here

Our Legal System Today: How and Why We Got Here

In the United States Judicial system, the right to trial by jury is a right confirmed by the constitution to achieve justice (Hastie, Penrod & Pennington 6). Intended to be a critical part of the judicial process, the jury is defined as a group that assesses facts of evidence, regarding a particular case, in order to present a verdict according to the law. However, history and modern culture have shown that the jury may not be fulfilling its defined purpose. Consisting of ordinary American citizens, the jury is viewed as an integral part of how ordinary citizens participate in the democratic governmental process. Yet, this very important element of the jury may now be its biggest flaw. While juries are closely selected by attorneys, frequently the jury of the ordinary man may be devoid of the particularly specialized expertise needed to follow the legal process or specific evidence given at trials. Similarly, juries are more inclined to be prone to bias and prejudice than a trained, professional judge. Though criminal and civil cases adhere to different principles in order to achieve guilty verdicts, the jury’s basic flaws in regarding many facts in general compromises its role in a trial for both cases. Due to the jury’s lack of expert knowledge in particular fields and its apparent bias when ruling, it is an an ineffective institution for investigating facts in all types of trials.

The jury’s lack of intellectual equipment in understanding the dense legal process and some critical evidence at trials hinders its ability to dissect facts properly. Although the system of how the jury must go about evaluating a case is described in detail to the jurors, many legal officials feel that “the complexity of the law- [and] legal concepts cannot be reduced to simple lay language” and therefore results in a bout of miscommunication (Hans, Vidmar 120). Many research projects, conducted by lawyers and psychologists, to test juror understanding regarding legal instructions that he or she has received, have found that “given the convoluted language and special legal terms, jurors‘ comprehension [regarding the legal process they must engage in] is often very low” (Hans, Vidmar 121). If the jury is unable to decipher how it must go about interpreting the case and all its legal regulations in general, it is highly likely that their inability to understand regulation, frustration, and confusion will make its pursuit of going over facts a secondary hurdle. In addition to the comprehension issues the jury faces against the legal system, it can fail to perfectly follow legal direction, such as judge requests to disregard certain facts. When situations arise in which critical case points, that may cause bias, are introduced and jurors are then instructed to disregard them, many jurors have noted it is usually pretty difficult to put from their minds this new evidence (Hans, Vidmar 124). Since jurors are only required to render a verdict and have no obligation to explain how they have arrived to said verdict, instances like these may occur often without the judge ever knowing. It is then a matter of concern that the jury is perhaps not understanding or following the dense legal process completely.

However, it is not just confusion about the legal process that renders the jury ineffective, rather sometimes a bafflement towards special field evidence. In 1982, a jury acquitted lawyer, Norman Perl, on nineteen counts of mail fraud and conspiracy. According to the Minneapolis Tribune and speculation, this was done because the jury’s perception of “the relationship between fraud and conspiracy charges” were “contrary to the instructions the judge had given them and contrary to the laws” perception of the relationship (Hans, Vidmar 113-114). It then appears that “jurors are not competent to decide the complex legal and factual issues germane to many trials” because they lack the particular skill set to apply to a field they are unfamiliar with. After all, could a doctor have difficulty understanding the crucial parts of an insurance case involved around accounts in a civil case? Will a baker have a tough time placing the forensic science evidence in a murder trial? While it is not an attack on the intelligence of the common citizen, the fact remains that the ordinary citizen, though specializing in their own field, may lack the intellectual expertise required for some evidence in trials. The danger is heightened when this discrepancy of intelligence based on specific fields is combined with human emotions.

Often considered a thirteenth juror, human bias is extremely prevalent in the way it disrupts the jury in its mission to correctly go over facts. Since jurors have not been trained in the legal way that judges and lawyers have, and as a result, are far more susceptible to bias for the defendant as well as prejudice against the defendant. In a case involving an abused wife having shot her alcoholic husband using a previously purchased gun for protection, the jury acquitted the woman, despite the “premeditated nature of her act” (Hans, Vidmar 116). Though the abused woman is a victim herself and deserves universal sympathy, the legal system has been put in place to govern society. Despite having pulled a gun to protect herself, her act was somewhat premeditated and a learned judge, versed in the law, would have given a fitting judgement. Instead, a sympathetic jury awarded this woman freedom despite this being an aversion from the law. Though it can be argued that laws such as this can be unjust and that the jury serves to make this clear, this carries an implication that ordinary citizens can theoretically change any laws to benefit them. Similarly, if a law is unjust, the judge can find it to be so as well.

In some cases regarding past criminal records and eyewitness reliability, juries can actually become prejudiced towards the defendant, once again making a clear procession through facts difficult. Despite the legal right that all defendants are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, prosecutors are allowed to reveal previous criminal records for defendants in order to assess witness credibility (Hans, Vidmar 125). Evidence has shown that juries are prejudiced against defendants who they then believed have previously lied in a court of law and conversely, show bias towards defendants who are better looking, or seem more stable and civilized (Hans, Vidmar 125). It is in human nature to be distrustful of those who have been dishonest, and to like those who one identifies with. However, in a court of law, sympathetic and prejudicial tendencies must be at the very minimum. The jury’s use of overriding human emotions in favor for ruling decisions rather than precisely following the law for verdicts shows the compromise it makes in effectively evaluating facts. Furthermore, studies have proved that rather than actual factual evidence, juries are swayed my emotional testimony in the form of eyewitnesses (Hans, Vidmar 127). In a particular experiment conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, it was found that when juries were not provided an eyewitness in a robbery-murder case, only 18 percent voted guilty, in comparison to 72 percent who did once they had a specifically discredited eyewitness (Hans, Vidmar 128). Despite having the same factual evidence in both cases and one group only being awarded a discredited eyewitness, the juries drastically differed on their verdicts simply because there was another human being, with questionable testimony, who claimed they knew the truth about the case. This suggests that jurors are persuaded by bias and prejudice that conversation can lend them more so than concrete facts about cases can. As a result, it can be concluded that the jury is ineffective at fact evaluation because of the importance it dictates to emotions over factual evidence.

Objectivity and correct legal procedures are necessities in a court trial and all defendants are assured a speedy trial by an impartial jury. As the purpose of a trial is the investigation of facts for a conclusive verdict, it is vital that a jury must hold the requirements of being neutral and understanding of the legal processes. Since the jury seems to not be up to par with both these requirements frequently, it is now a system that is unable to live up to its role in the judicial system. This view is hardly differentiable when it comes to civil versus criminal cases. Despite the qualifications for guilt being different in each type of case, the defendants in each deserve a jury that knows how to approach facts and is not emotionally moved by other trial elements. Though not every juror or every jury itself has fallen into these two critical problems in the past, the fact that some have, constitutes the need to possibly abolish the jury system for not having achieved their goal. After all, justice needs to be served always, the majority of times is simply not enough. Instead, favor should be given to legal professionals who are aware of the law in detail and are trained to suppress human biases when investigating facts. While the conceptual idea of the jury is wonderful and inspiring, if its end goal to achieve justice is being compromised, it is time for this to be remedied with legal officials.

Reference Sheet
Hans, Valerie P., and Neil Vidmar. Judging the Jury. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Book Group, 1986. Print.
Hastie, Reid, Steven D. Penrod, Nancy Pennington. Inside the Jury. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983. Print.