What does every juror need to know when they are chosen to sit for a criminal trial?
In an article for Slate, Seth Stevenson writes about how he served as a juror in 1998, helped convict two men of murder, and has regretted it ever since…
Seth describes how he was just a “cog in the machine,” dragged along inexorably by the prosecutor, the judge, and then other jurors, until he cast his vote to take away a young man’s life. Even though he didn’t think it was the right thing to do:
When we describe our criminal justice system as an enormous machine—one designed to convey young black men into prisons and keep them there—it is Dominic’s story we’re talking about. I tell you this particular story, as opposed to any of the countless other stories one could tell, because in this story I am a cog in the machine.
Two men were on trial for murder. The evidence showed that only one man, Maurice, fired the gun, although the prosecutor tried to argue otherwise.
Seth, and likely other jurors in the trial, felt like it was clear that one defendant had committed murder while the other defendant, Dominic, was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong friend.
They convicted both defendants anyway.
Every Juror Needs to Know They are Not Just a Cog in the Machine
What do jurors need to know? The criminal justice system in SC fails… often.
The criminal justice system is designed to convict and punish.
We can talk all day about constitutional protections, trial by jury, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, liberty, and justice and for all, and that’s all well and good. Sometimes, those constitutional protections save an innocent person – just often enough that judges and prosecutors can point to it and say, “look, see – the system is working!”
More often, the system fails the people who need it the most. Why does it fail? Prosecutors and defense lawyers say, “it’s in the jury’s hands.” Judges say, “it’s up to the attorneys.” Jurors say they are bound by the law and the court’s instructions and feel that they have no control:
The other thing I noticed was that none of these professionals felt they’d had much control over the case’s outcome. The prosecutor who tried a minor as an adult, the judge who sentenced that teenager to decades in prison even though she felt he wasn’t maximally “culpable” in the crime, and the defense attorney who didn’t second-guess any tactical choices on behalf of a losing client—they all felt they’d done what the system required of them. Both Moore and Abrecht reminded me that the onus of the verdict is on the jury. I saw them as the machine’s operators and myself as one of the gears they were turning. They told me I’d been the one in control the whole time.
Jurors need to know that they are just a cog in the machine if that’s how they see themselves. The system is set up and designed to convince them that they are just a cog in the machine. Long before jurors reach the courtroom, society has conditioned them to believe they are just a cog in the machine.
On the other hand, jurors need to know that, if they see themselves as a check on the power of the government, then they are a check on the power of the government.
Jurors need to know that, despite what the prosecutor or court says or implies to them, they are a check on the power of the government. The role of jurors has never been to convict or to “rubber stamp” the actions of police, prosecutors, and judges. The role of jurors has always been to check the government and to prevent injustices from happening.
Mostly, we suffer in a society of sheep who blindly follow the orders of their government. Or a prosecutor. Or a police officer. Or a judge. Or a strong personality in the jury room. We all need someone to tell us what to do. A life of living as sheep then results in a vote to convict a person who you don’t really think deserves it.
You are not a cog in the machine.
Your opinion matters. Your vote matters. You didn’t ask for this responsibility, but you have it now. If you vote to convict a person solely because you feel pressured to convict or because you think the law says to convict, although you don’t feel that it is the right thing to do, there is no do-over.
What’s a Reasonable Doubt in a Criminal Trial?
Jurors need to know that reasonable doubt means a doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate to act. If you aren’t sure that a defendant deserves to be convicted of the crime and you find yourself hesitating, you find them not guilty. By default, your pen rests on the not guilty verdict.
Reasonable doubt is a doubt for which you can give a reason. It’s not proof beyond all doubt, but, if you find a reason to not convict a person, you find them not guilty.
One thing that may come up during a trial is dishonesty from the prosecutor or the state’s witnesses – do you really want to send a person to prison for life when you suspect the prosecutor is lying or exaggerating to get a guilty verdict?
The prosecution tried awfully hard to make us believe that two separate guns had been fired down the hill. But the shell casings and spent bullets all traced back to a single, specific handgun: a clip-loading Luger 9 mm pistol that was never found by police. There was no hard proof that a second gun had been fired.
Juror Seth found reasonable doubt in Dominic’s trial, ignored it, and defaulted to guilty anyway:
By the time the testimony was over, I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Maurice had shot at Johnson. I also believed that the prosecution had only proved that one gun had been fired, and I found it hard to envision a scenario in which Dominic would have been the lone shooter. Why would he take it upon himself to start shooting at men he’d never argued with or even seen before? Meanwhile, it was easy to imagine him as subordinate to his older pal, standing by as Maurice fired angrily at the dudes he felt had dissed him.
Why did he default to guilty? Well, the judge gave instructions that said we could…
Jurors Need to Know What Jury Nullification Means
Jurors need to know that they never have to vote guilty in a criminal trial. Their job is to vote not guilty when they have doubt or when they feel that a guilty verdict would be an injustice.
Seth says that the prosecutor told them they could vote guilty, and the judge confirmed it, therefore he voted guilty:
But then, in her closing argument, the prosecutor claimed we could find both men guilty without the government proving who fired the fatal shot. Just before the judge sent us off to deliberate, she issued us instructions that echoed this idea: Both defendants could be equally guilty of murder in the first degree even if one of them had never brandished a gun. “It is not necessary that the defendant have had the same intent that the principal offender had when the crime was committed or that he have intended to commit the particular crime committed by the principal offender,” she read to us. “The aider and abettor is legally responsible for the acts of other persons that are the natural and probable consequences of the crime in which he intentionally participated.”
During deliberations, another juror “made it clear she had zero doubt that we were required to find both defendants guilty.” And Seth listened. And did what he was told, like the rest of the jurors.
It was the language of the law that hemmed me in. It seemed strict and unyielding. A different jury, a different mix of humans, might have felt less constrained by those words… No matter what the law said, the decision was ours. We had a choice. We’d bear responsibility for what happened to Dominic from that day forward.
Jurors need to know that they are never required to vote guilty in a criminal trial. Even when the facts squarely indicate guilty, you can vote not guilty because you do not agree with the law or because the law should not apply to this particular defendant’s situation.
It’s called jury nullification. Attorneys in SC cannot argue it to you or explain it to you. The Court will never give you a jury instruction about it (not in SC, anyway). The prosecutor certainly won’t mention it to you.
Nevertheless, it’s your right as a juror.
If you feel that a conviction is wrong, even though the law applied to the facts suggests a conviction, grow a pair and vote not guilty. What are they going to do? Arrest you? Yell at you? Shake their head at you disapprovingly?
They aren’t going to do any of those things – your verdict is your verdict, it does not have to be unanimous, and, right or wrong, this decision may haunt you for the rest of your life.
Jurors Need to Know that Appellate Courts Don’t Always Correct Errors of Law
The Court will usually tell the jurors, as part of their standard jury instructions, that the jurors should not concern themselves with whether the law is correct or incorrect.
Why? Because the appellate courts will correct any mistakes that are made during the trial, of course.
But jurors need to know that they often don’t. Appellate courts do overturn convictions, but it is rare. More often, the appellate courts will find a way to affirm a conviction, even in the face of obvious mistakes during the trial. Which is what happened after Dominic’s conviction:
I turned up documents revealing that Dominic had appealed his conviction in 2002 on multiple grounds, among them this refusal to sever. But the idea that each defendant was harming the other—so obvious to me as I watched from the jury box—did not sway the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Dominic’s appeal was denied.
Despite the Court’s assurances that you are just a cog in the machine, that someone else will bear the responsibility for taking away a person’s life, and that someone else will correct any errors later, Dominic is still in prison and what Seth and his fellow jurors did cannot be undone:
I carried profound guilt over sending Dominic to prison for decades when I’d thought he hadn’t deserved it…
What I’d helped do could not be undone.
Who is Responsible for Stopping Injustice?
If you are a juror in a criminal trial, you need to know that you are in charge of the verdict. Not the judge, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, or the appellate courts.
Like it or not, it’s you.
It seemed as if we were all telling ourselves stories that would make us feel better. It was that judge’s instruction. It was that one woman who dominated the jury. None of us wanted to accept that we’d been in charge.
We expect the police to make sound decisions. But that doesn’t always happen.
We expect prosecutors to make fair decisions in the pursuit of justice. But that doesn’t always happen.
We expect the judge to stop any injustice that they see in their courtroom. But that doesn’t always happen.
We expect the defense lawyer to fully investigate their client’s case and then persuasively present it to the jurors like Clarence Darrow or Gerry Spence, ensuring that innocent people do not go to prison. But that definitely does not always happen.
When all these safeguards fail, who is the last line of defense? If you say, “the appellate court,” you haven’t been paying attention. If you are a juror in a criminal case, it’s you.
When the police, prosecutor, judge, and defense attorney have all failed to find justice, for whatever reason, the only thing standing between a living, breathing, human being and a crushing injustice is you.
Maybe it’s you and 11 jurors in the room with you. But if all 11 of your fellow jurors fail to find justice, it’s just you. You are not a cog in the machine unless you choose to be a cog in the machine.
Will you rise to the challenge, or spend the rest of your days feeling guilty because you unjustly ended a person’s life?
Criminal Defense Lawyers in Columbia, Lexington, and Myrtle Beach, SC
The criminal defense attorneys at the Thompson & Hiller Defense Firm focus exclusively on criminal defense cases in SC. We have obtained dismissals, pre-trial diversion resulting in dismissals, or acquittals following trial in hundreds of criminal cases, and we have a record of proven results.
If you have been charged with a crime in SC or if you think you may be under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or contact us through our website for a free initial consultation to find out if we can help.