Once upon a time, I was on a jury, maybe twenty to thirty years ago. My memory of it continues to be strong, at least of the important facts, though not many specific details. The trial was of a man accused of drunk driving or DUI. The trial lasted a single day, evidence, deliberations, verdict, and sentencing.
When my co-jurors and I left the courtroom to begin our discussion, I expected it to be short, because to me, he was clearly guilty. I expected immediate and full agreement amongst us. Was I wrong! When we were asked for our initial opinions, I was the only person who believed him guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. Every other person thought him innocent.
Then, we began our discussion. One person brought up the idea that no one had been hurt. Another (maybe me) reminded us that the judge had said that whether or not anyone was injured was not the issue. The defending attorney had suggested that it was perhaps due to a disability that the accused had walked so crookedly, not necessarily because of intoxication. We were reminded (again, perhaps by me) that evidence of a disability had not been presented. One by one, we discussed each juror’s idea of a reasonable doubt and, one by one, we dismissed them. A couple of people disclosed that they, in fact, sometimes drove after drinking and, if no one was hurt, they determined that it was acceptable for them.
Finally, in another vote, we were unanimous in declaring him guilty. We rejoined the courtroom and presented our verdict, before being thanked for our service and dismissed. I reentered the courtroom in the general gallery and listened to the sentence presented by the judge. Actually, I don’t remember the sentence. What I remember is that the judge reported to the attorneys that the defendant had been arrested multiple times before for other DUIs, but not convicted. It appeared clear that he was a repeat offender.
So, I am left without many details. The most prominent memory is that, when I recognized that I was the only person who thought him guilty, I had a moment of self-doubt. What if I had given in to that doubt and gone along with the others? A guilty man may have been acquitted and been given the opportunity to harm another with repeated drunk driving.
I am left considering the average jury: are they usually of medium intelligence, mediocre, not especially bright, inquisitive, or thoughtful? Does it stand to reason that at least one or two will fall into the top ten percent of intelligence? Does it often happen that one or two will guide the others to the ‘right’ decision? Maybe. Initially, this thought was disturbing to me. However, upon reflection, it seems inevitable. These two phrases, ‘a jury of your peers’ and ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ are indeed essential to our justice system. I am proud to have served on a jury and glad that I stuck with what appeared right to me, despite being the minority voice.
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