(About a 5 minute read)
Some years ago, an enraged husband shot and killed a young man in my hometown who had been cheating on the husband with his wife. To aggravate matters, the young man had thought it wise to write several letters to the husband mocking him in nearly every imaginable way.
The husband was a private in the army — stationed at a distant base — and quite unable to afford a lawyer. His public defender was one of the best lawyers in town, albeit young, and this was his first murder case.
To make matters worse, the prosecution’s case looked airtight. It could be established the husband had left his based in time to reach town before the killing. His direction of travel was established by credit card receipts for gas. He was seen by multiple witnesses to have picked up the young man in his car shortly before the murder.
As if that were not bad enough, a state trooper — who had stopped the husband on the interstate an hour or so after the shooting — had recovered the handgun used in the murder from where he’d seen it thrown out of the husband’s car as he was being pulled over.
One day, before the trial, the public defender was talking over lunch with my mother about the case. He said he was stumped how to defend the husband. Mom thought about it, then told him, “Not many people in town liked Raleigh (the young man), and a lot of people are sympathetic to Jason (the husband) because of Raleigh’s letters. So I think all you need to do is find some mere excuse for the jury to vote not-guilty. It won’t take much. Only something that they can claim, without hanging their heads in shame when they say it, ‘forced them to vote not-guilty’.”
The public defender returned to his office, re-studied the case for the hundredth time, and then decided to hammer home to the jury the one flimsy weakness in the prosecution’s case. As he later told mom, “I knew it was nothing to let Jason off on, but I kept repeating to myself over and over your words to me.”
In the end, the jury decided that there was reasonable doubt Jason had shot Raleigh because the state trooper was unable to verify that the object he’d seen thrown from the window of Jason’s car had been the actual gun used in the murder, despite that the gun had been found exactly where the officer had seen the “object” land.
The traditional role of the jury in American law has been somewhat greater than most of us realize. We tend to think of juries as merely deciding whether someone is guilty or not guilty, or — if we’re a little bit more knowledgeable than that — we might recognize that they sometimes decide the award in civil suits, or have some other functions.
But one of their traditional functions goes largely unnoticed — or when it is noticed, it is condemned as corruption.
That is their function in imposing community standards on the law. They are not suppose to do it. They are suppose to strictly adhere to the law as it has been written by the legislature and interpreted by the courts. But juries do it anyway.
They probably do it in large part because it’s the easiest course of action for a human to see things from his or her own perspective rather than from the perspective of the legislators and the courts. But whatever the case, it amounts to imposing the standards of the community on the law, in so far as the jurors themselves either represent those standards or respect that they will be held accountable to them by their friends and neighbors after the trial is over.
A recent national example of that was the trial of Jeffrey Winder for assault and battery. Winder was caught on video punching out Jason Kessler, Kessler is the man who organized the white supremacist “Unite the Right” Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to the death Heather Heyer, and the injury of 19 other people, when one of the white supremacists in attendance at the rally drove his car into her and into them.
For assault and battery, Winder faced up to $2,500 in fines and a year in jail. The jury gave him a $1 fine and no jail time — the absolute minimum it could give him, given that he was convicted of the assault and battery charge.
To me, this is clearly the case of a jury imposing community standards on a law case. There doesn’t seem to be any other way of reading it, since Winder was caught on tape punching out a man who was not attacking him, nor even threatening to attack him.
As for whether it is right or wrong for juries to do what they most likely will always do to at least some extent, I come down slightly — but only slightly — in favor of it being wrong. On the positive side you can point out that it’s democracy in action — at least in a way — and that it might now and then be just.
But democracies are no respecters of the rights of minorities, and the Winder case is an illustration of that. White supremacists are still the minority in this country and — for everyone’s sake — their rights and the rights of other minorities should be respected. Moreover, the jury’s action encourages all manner of attacks in which the perpetrator thinks he or she can get away with it because no jury of their peers will touch them.
I am not so naive as to think that juries will ever for the most part avoid judging according to community standards, but I do feel that such judging is more likely to lead to miscarriages of justice than to justice.