Citizen jurors

THE jury that found three white teen-agers guilty of manslaughter last week in the racially charged Howard Beach case spent 80 hours reaching a verdict. Jurors in the Michael Deaver case spent 27 hours in what its foreman called ``very intense'' deliberations. The length of time may be unusual; the depth of discussion and commitment to justice are not. Jury service by laymen, sifting the evidence and sitting in judgment on their fellow citizens, remains one of the truest and most rewarding examples of genuine democracy at work. No other nation relies on jury trials as extensively as the United States; 90 percent of all those in the world take place on American soil. Many of the 3 million US citizens called to serve each year can readily identify with the Deaver foreman's description. Talks are often particularly intense during criminal trials: All 12 jurors must agree on the verdict, and proof of guilt must be ``beyond a reasonable doubt.''

Fittingly, jury selection is growing more democratic. Jury duty on the basis of ``one day or one trial'' is becoming more common. This keeps people from having to drop regular jobs for a month or two, as used to happen, waiting to be called and then getting challenged off. Many states now draw from a list of licensed drivers as well as registered voters; Massachusetts does even better, using the state census. Fewer exemptions are allowed.

Still, during a trial much of any juror's time is spent waiting - for witnesses to arrive and for lawyers to confer. But once jurors are asked to reach a verdict, the change is marked. Suddenly the most flippant, and those who have complained most that the testimony puts them to sleep, grow serious about their new responsibilities. Many who have long kept their thoughts to themselves pull chairs up to the common table and begin to share their views. Often a jury must sift two or three sharply conflicting sworn versions of events in its search for the truth. Sometimes the majority tries to bully holdouts into taking its view. Occasionally the minority can by logic bring the majority around to its view. At times the forced intimacy is like a family hashing things out over the kitchen table.

Justice is not always served. One member of an all-white jury that failed, despite strong evidence, to convict white youngsters of a crime in a racial incident frets about the omission years afterward.

But innocent until proved guilty remains the standard. To a remarkable degree citizens with no prior legal training are able to uphold it. Many, as in the Deaver trial, pepper the judge with legal questions and requests for everything from dictionaries to transcripts.

Seldom do jurors take the responsibility lightly. Jurors on the recent Monsanto toxic spill case devoted more than three and a half years to hearing testimony and deliberating; it now holds the record as the longest jury trial in US history.

Most jury findings are fair. One New York judge insists he has never yet seen a jury reach what he would call an ``outrageous'' verdict.

Yet few potential jurors really want the job. ``I didn't want anybody's life in my hands,'' recalls one juror who recently served on a criminal trial in Boston. But like most jurors, she came out of these ``family'' deliberations far richer for the experience. More than paying taxes or voting, jury duty, she says, gave her an appreciation of what participatory government really means.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.