When the Public Becomes Judge and Jury

We should, instead, step back and let the justice system work

Like sports announcers hot on the trail of a championship, the court watchers of the news media have pulled up stakes from the Louise Woodward trial and repitched their camps in Denver and California.

What will be the next trial to blast its way into the Nielsen ratings? Will Terry Nichols or Theodore Kaczynski star in the next media courthouse square extravaganza, or will some "dark horse" steal the show?

Judge Hiller B. Zobel, who presided over the Woodward trial, made a profound comment in issuing his ruling to reduce the charge of which the au pair was convicted.

"In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite."

Personal verdicts

But, in fact, we've come closer and closer to doing just that. With Ms. Woodward, we watched partisans on both sides of the Atlantic waving their placards and raising their fists as they shouted their personal verdicts for or against conviction. Television crews assumed Judge Zobel's role in screening the "evidence," then moved on to monitor the "closing statements" of sidewalk advocates. Issues not legally relevant to the trial in Matthew Eappen's tragic death took over the public debate - the lifestyle of his parents, careers versus child-care options, American versus British justice.

Before Woodward we watched the same sort of characterization and instant analysis by self-acclaimed legal gurus, by straw polls, and by media mavens in the trials of Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, the Menendez brothers, Jeffrey Dahmer, Rodney King, and even Patty Hearst and Charles Manson.

In trials such as those, public pressure has demanded particular decisions, in contrast to deliberative courtroom justice.

This era of spin doctors, public opinion polls, sound bites, and general media hype creates and underscores the danger of influencing decisions that should be governed by the rule of law, impartially and independently applied. Even beyond the potential impact on a single case is the danger that the whims and fancies of public reaction will affect our legal system and hinder the independence of judges, the guardians of our justice system since this nation was founded.

Our system has worked for 200 years, and indeed it works now. The public nature of our system, the openness that allows each of us to form an opinion, is part of what makes it work. It allows us to influence our legislatures, our executives, and our administrators, to create and implement a democratic system of government. But that is where public influence belongs - with our legislators and our executives. Not in our courts.

Who should decide

Simply put, juries decide the facts and judges decide the law, with checks and balances over both in our system of appeals. And as the judges and juries are doing their work, the rest of us need to step back and let the system work. Let it work in Massachusetts; let it work for Nichols and Kaczynski; and let it work in courtrooms everywhere in America.

We may not be able to stop the polls, the marches, the demonstrations, the media blitzes, and the helter-skelter rush to anticipate justice. But let us retain a perspective that is not skewered by a particular case that catches popular fancy. Since our nation's beginning, we have had a jury system that merits our confidence and an independent judiciary that is a mainstay of our constitutional democracy. That system must not be subject to popular fancy.

"In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite."

* Jerome J. Shestack is president of the American Bar Association.

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.