Trial by Jury

WHAT went wrong in the Rodney King trial? Does the verdict in favor of four white police officers accused of savagely beating a black man - which many Americans of all races, from President Bush down, regard as an affront to fairness and decency - impugn the American system of justice?

Many believe that the 12 jurors in the King case failed in their duty. How could anyone who saw the videotape, in which blows and kicks rain on the prostrate King, vote to acquit the officers?

Let's recall what a juror's duty is in a criminal case: It is, (a) starting with a presumption of the defendant's innocence, (b) to find based on all the evidence (c) that the prosecution has proved every element of a criminal statute against the defendant (d) beyond reasonable doubt.

That's a steep hill to climb to convict a criminal. Americans properly believe it's better that guilty defendants go free than that innocent people be convicted of crimes.

The presumption of innocence and the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard are rightly hailed by civil libertarians as cornerstones of American liberty. Over two centuries they have protected the freedom of many people, including the poor, members of minority groups, and others who seemed powerless before the system.

The evidence of brutality in the videotape seems irrefutable. But it wasn't the only evidence presented at trial. If the jurors - sitting in the courtroom over long weeks, hearing the witnesses and watching their demeanor, having defense experts dissect the videotape frame by frame - formed any reasonable doubt whatever regarding the officers' guilt, they had a moral and legal obligation to vote for acquittal.

But let's assume that something truly went wrong, that the jury should have convicted the officers despite all the legal safeguards. What's the explanation?

The most obvious one, of course, is that the King jurors were bigots. That's a damning charge to lay on 12 average American citizens, particularly in the absence of supporting evidence about the jurors. These weren't citizens of rural Mississippi circa 1935. Subsequent reports have disclosed the personal anguish some of the jurors felt during the deliberations.

A broader charge - one that's been flung around in recent days - is that America is a racist nation, where a black person can't hope to get justice.

That, too, is a slander against a society that, though far from perfect, has made large strides toward social justice. The shock from the King verdict crossed racial lines. (A writer on this page once served on an all-white jury that acquitted a black man because of sloppy police work.)

The most plausible explanation for the verdict is that no blacks sat on the jury. Even if the jurors weren't prejudiced either against blacks or for the police, they took into the jury room backgrounds, experiences, perceptions, and misperceptions that were not challenged or offset by the viewpoints black colleagues could have offered.

Blacks were absent from the King jury not because of discrimination (which the Supreme Court has prohibited), but because the trial had been transferred, owing to pretrial publicity, to a community where few blacks were in the juror pool. This was a mistake.

But it's a mistake that is correctible by legislation and by heightened judicial sensitivity regarding the venue of trials with racial implications.

The aftermath of the Rodney King verdict was a tragedy for Los Angeles and the nation. It raised anew serious social and economic issues that Americans have tried to duck. But the troubled state of race relations doesn't compel the conclusion that the verdict itself was racist.

If the verdict was the result of systemic flaws, those flaws can be fixed. Over the years, American courts and legislatures have improved trials by jury - for instance, by strengthening a defendant's right to competent counsel and by eliminating discrimination in jury selection.

As a means to achieve justice, trial by jury can be improved; but it is far better than trial by the news media, by public-opinion polls, or by rioters angry over an unpopular verdict.

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