Jury Duty II

published by Eric Mill on

(followup from Part I)

Following a couple hours of deliberation, we ruled guilty on all counts. The verdict on the count of distribution for the drug user was the most difficult. We unanimously believed that the legal definition of distribution had been met, and unanimously believed that the defendant was not a drug dealer and that it was not in the spirit of the law. We unanimously believed that this sucked.

After our first round of discussion on the matter, we took a vote and were split 7-5 in favor of voting guilty. Everyone on the jury was very open minded and respectful, and many of us went back and forth. We had a diverse jury with good racial and socioeconomic representation, and at no time did it feel like a mob. Eventually, we coalesced around a guilty verdict, with a couple of jurors holding on to not-guilty votes for a while before eventually deciding that they weren't going to hang the jury over it.

I was one of the jurors who initially voted guilty. I was always close to the edge and possibly could have been persuaded differently, but my gut feeling was that this situation didn't merit us disregarding the law.

It's not a very popular position. Since then, I've described the trial to at least 20 people, and all but 2 or 3 have said they would have voted not guilty, and a few said they'd even hang the jury over it. Drug laws in general aren't popular, and jury nullification is a legitimate and empowering function of our judicial system.

I believe in jury nullification, and my respect for the drug war has hit a new low with my recent first-person view of how the government sprays imprisonment around drug-addled neighborhoods like tear gas. I despise the prosecution for putting us in the position they did, and I view drug sting operations with a sharpened skepticism.

I also believe in a jury that weighs their duty as citizens alongside their conscience. Juries are in part a bulwark against bad laws, but they're also a necessary legitimation of the law in general. Laws are put in place by a democratically elected body, so for a jury of 12 to ignore what is meant as the will of the people because they don't agree, they had better have a very strong reason. There is an ethical responsibility to uphold the law. It is not absolute, but it is serious.

It's not absolute at all: if the situation had been more extreme, or the charges more dire, I could easily see myself pushing for a not guilty verdict. And in the other verdicts we delivered, where the evidence was clear and the spirit of the law being kept, the guilty verdicts were easy.

It's an individual determination, and I don't have a lot of respect for those that treat the jury system as an avenue for grassroots political activity. Bring lawsuits, sway public opinion, get someone elected, get yourself elected, but neither judges nor juries bear the burden of bending the system to what they personally think is right. Judges and juries are doing their best to uphold the ideals of an impartial, uncorrupted trial system, and we do a lot better at that than most of the world. The idea of turning the jury room into yet another political militarized zone is anathema to me.

This is not meant as an evasion of responsibility, because that's not really emotionally possible. I was the foreperson, and read the verdict aloud to the court. As I walked away from the courthouse after the trial and left its sphere of authority behind, the values of upholding the law felt dwarfed by the weight of the verdict that I'd helped deliver. The plain fact is that this guy is going to spend a lot more time away from his grandchildren because of our adherence to the letter of the law. That night, and at other times afterward, I found it impossible to listen to music or feel happy, knowing that I'd made someone else's future so much darker.

I went back and found out the day of the sentencing, and I'll be in court that day for it. The judge is smart and sensible, and I think she'll show lenience, but whether she does or not is entirely separate from the wisdom of the verdict.

I don't think I'll know whether I regret the decision for at least a year; I need to get some distance. In the meantime, I find myself wandering through courthouses and sitting in the audience for random trials, feeling a connection and respect for a system that used to seem so impersonal until I sat inside it.


  1. Adam (PWX)

    I know it's impossible not to do, but I feel like you can't blame yourselves for the fate of the man. Grand kids aside, he should have known "if a strange man approaches you on a street asking where to get drugs, don't go take him to a dealer" Bad judgments, especially bad judgments when dealing with something against the law, have their consequences.

    Of course, I do feel for the guy. I'm of the opinion that drug laws are completely ridiculous, and a lot of them exist for ulterior reasons than what is publicly stated. I also feel like this whole situation was brought about through underhanded tactics.

    I'm not sure how I feel about jury nullification. It seems like it's hard enough to come to decisions when you're dealing with laws and moral feelings, but if you suddenly told people that they didn't have to go strictly with what the law says, I think they would be more conflicted.

  2. Eric Mill

    I totally respect your feelings, and I think we agree on most things anyway. No one is talking about prohibiting the jury from using their collective conscience; my point was that that the jury's duty is not solely to its conscience. My personal weighting of the issues here and yours are just different.

    I also agree that I would feel more comfortable with the system if more jurors were better educated about their role. Arrests like this anger me: http://www.disinfo.com/2011/03/professor-faces-trial-for-distributing-jury-nullification-pamphlets/

    At the same time, I would probably disagree with the contents of such a pamphlet, since I don't think conscience is the only important thing for jurors in the jury room. We'd all be better off if we had more comprehensive (and less extreme) education in school or normal public life about what a jury of one's peers is supposed to be.

  3. Rebecca N.

    Imagine that you have a choice of whether to put your self--your freedom--into the hands of the American legal system. The inclusion of a jury of your peers who will hear any case against you and make the ultimate decision as to whether you are guilty should be a reassurance against unfair exercise of power by the system against you. If a jury is prohibited from acting according to its collective conscience, can it serve this purpose? I think it cannot.

    Jury rooms are black boxes at least in part for this reason. As jurors you are not expected to be legal scholars or to create precedent. You are not subject to interrogation on the reasons for your decision. You are expected to make the best decision you can. You should make a choice you think is right. If your decision is too far out of sync with the law, the judge has the power to set it aside.

    I respect your jury's principled choice to follow the letter of the law as a way of showing respect for the system but I think it was wrong. Respect for the law is a good principle to use in deciding what is right, but it does not have to be applied so rigidly. It should be applied in a way that helps make the system into one that makes fair decisions. Writing laws that, by the letter of the law, deal with each individual situation fairly is extremely hard, if not impossible. The combination of prosecutorial discretion, good defense lawyers, fair judges, and conscientious juries should help to find the correct line to draw in a given situation. In this situation it sounds like you were all quite sure of what the spirit of the law was and what would be a fair outcome for this defendant. I wish that the principle of respect for the law and the system had led you to follow the spirit of the law in this case and find the defendant innocent on the distribution count. A system in which juries are made to understand that this is within their power sounds much more like one to which I would willingly subject myself (if I had that choice).

    Jury nullification is an important power, but I don't think it is really what is going in this case. Jury nullification is a way that a common citizen (not legislator, not a community organizer, perhaps not even that active as a voter) can have a say as part of a jury when a law (or specified punishment for a particular crime) is really really out of step. It's a very important thing, I think, because it allows a juror to make decisions in keeping with his/her conscience even when it is very clearly against both the spirit and letter of the law. In your case, it seems like the case was very close to the blurry borders or the application of the drug dealing law in question. Making a finding that is in keeping with the spirit but perhaps not strictly the letter of the law seems well within the usual purview of what juries can do.

  4. Melanie B.

    Also to add to that, I think maintaining the integrity of the judicial system is essential to a functioning government. If sentencing a technically-a-drug-dealer-but-obviously-not man to a drug dealer's sentence is what it takes, is it worth it? I don't know, I wasn't in the room. That's what the jury was there to decide, and that's maybe why this case feels like it was such an extremely hard decision.

  5. Melanie B.

    These two posts were really interesting to read. I started school intending to be a public defender, until the realities of, well, everything kicked in. Legalities are all pretty tricky, and I didn't know if I could handle the responsibility. As I read your posts it occurs to me that I have never heard someone speak about their jury experience at all, never mind in the way that you have. Thank you for sharing your inside perspective with the rest of us. As you're finding that most people you ask would side with a not guilty verdict, don't feel like you need to defend or regret your decision. From the sound of your post, serving as a juror and making a decision that has a real impact on someone's life is a unique and trying experience, which suggests to me that none of us can actually know what we would do if we had been put in your position.

  6. Eric Mill

    I would love to see more education around jury nullification, as every court beneath the Supreme Court has basically tried to fight if off with tooth and claw and hide it from view. For that education to be responsible, though, it has to treat nullification as a weapon of last resort, something to be considered in individual cases.

    I'm sure the author of the brochure doesn't intend to erode the judicial system, he just really really thinks the drug war is immoral and that it preys on the weak. I get that, and I agree with a lot of it. Most people have at least one issue they feel really really strongly about, and many feel that it's worth any cost to win on it -- that their elected official should risk re-election for it, that judges should ignore precedent, and that juries should ignore the law. When enough people and groups treat it that way, it adds up to militarization. It's unhelpful anywhere, but in the political sphere it's an inevitable part of public life. The judicial system needs to stay above it.

  7. chrisrhoden

    So, I certainly don't envy you the position you were put in. It's always awful to be told you have to make a decision which has so much weight with someone you don't even know.

    I understand your point about 12 people ignoring the will of the people, but I think that you know how simplistic that is. I think that the will of the people was, at one point, to keep people off drugs. This specific issue is the one where I feel really strongly, and it's part of the reason I find it so hard to agree with your treatment of the brochure as turning the courtroom into a, "political militarized zone."

    The reality is that, in most of the country, in most of the juries formed, most people have no idea that jury nullification is an option. Most people have never heard the phrase. Most people think it is their responsibility to analyze the letter of the law, and nothing more. Judges and court officials will reinforce this impression. And while I think that this brochure runs the risk of making light of what should be a very very careful decision, I believe it does so in an effort to make the option clear first, and to push an agenda second.

    I could also be completely misreading things.