In our criminal justice system, we ask jurors to make incredibly difficult decisions about life and death, guilt and innocence, all without much training, preparation or support. One day you are a mother, father, employee, ordinary citizen; the next, you are deciding whether someone should be executed by order of the State.
This is the American system. Citizens become jurors and are suddenly entrusted with the most important decisions a society is required to make. Jurors are elevated to a constitutional role and given more power than ever before, all in the name of keeping the democratic legitimacy of citizen representation in our criminal justice system.
Just not in Alabama when it comes to the death penalty.
For the ninety-fifth time, a duly constituted local Alabama jury spared the life of a defendant facing the death penalty. In Woodward v. Alabama, the jurors voted 8-4 to sentence Mario Dion Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A single judge overrode the decision and sentenced Mr. Woodward to death.
In her dissent from a denial of certiorari, Justice Sonya Sotomayor raised significant Sixth and Eighth Amendment concerns about the practice of allowing judges (facing the political pressure of reelection) to impose the death penalty because those judges disagree with the jury’s assessments of the facts. Such reasoning runs directly against the logic of Ring v. Arizona and may violate the constitutional rights of the accused.
However the Supreme Court ultimately decides the constitutional issue, I see a broader problem focusing not on the accused but on the citizen. Simply stated, a judicial override process devalues civic participation and threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the jury system. By disrespecting the jury verdict, the judge is disrespecting the juror’s role in the criminal justice system.
The debate over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman jury verdict continues to reverberate as is typical of most high profile, racially divisive cases in this country. Even though the criminal case is over, the issues of race, class, gender, and justice remain loudly contested in a way that will not likely quiet soon.
Today, the six citizens who made the difficult decision in the Zimmerman case are no doubt reeling from the discordant critique of their verdict. These were ordinary citizens plucked at random and then selected to sit at the fault-lines of race relations in 21st Century America. As other citizens receive their jury summons today and in the future, it is worth considering the situation of the Zimmerman jurors.
First, much has been made about the jurors’ gender. The early headlines of most major news outlets proclaimed “an all women jury.” Five white and one Hispanic woman were thus immediately examined for how gender might affect the jury. Forgotten were the historic and decades-long suffrage struggles to get any women (let alone all women) to sit on a jury. Instead, modern gender stereotypes and speculations were tossed about as to how gender might affect the verdict. Well, we now know the verdict, but can anyone say gender had any impact? Time may tell as the anonymous jurors reveal more about their deliberations, but likely gender did not play any direct role. Certainly, it was not because the jury was all women that the verdict resulted as it did. Commentators from both genders have weighed in on how the verdict was defensible under the existing Florida law.
Second, forgotten in the media tumult is the sacrifice made by the jurors who were sequestered during trial. Sequestering juries is no longer the norm in most places, and with the exception of big media cases, largely avoided. But, for the weeks of jury service, those six citizens were completely serving their community. This is no small sacrifice. To be completely at the whim of the court system schedule, away from work, family, and life responsibilities in order to judge a stranger’s problem is a tremendous service. Further, to deliberate for 16 hours is no small feat. When is the last time you held a 16 hour meeting to discuss and decide on a problem? This type of commitment should be validated not vilified, as has unfortunately been the case from some quarters.
Every year approximately 30 million American citizens get an invitation to constitutional action in the form of a jury summons. Most dread this core constitutional obligation. Forgotten is the jury’s connection to American history from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil Rights Movement. Ignored are the meaningful, foundational lessons of citizen-jurors over two centuries.
Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action(NYU Press 2013) was written to change that negative reaction to jury duty. This book is the first book written for jurors on jury duty and seeks to inspire an appreciation of this important American institution. It is a book that will make jury service personally meaningful and will strengthen constitutional literacy in America.
This book does much of what ACS does – translate constitutional ideas so that ordinary people can understand the importance of the Constitution. As a trial lawyer for nine years, I watched jurors every day in the courthouse. I witnessed how they missed the constitutional value of jury service. This book was my gift back to those citizens, and to the millions of future jurors who will serve in the coming years. It is a how-to book for democratic practice. It is a primer on constitutional principles. It is an argument for reclaiming the central place juries have played in our society. Professor Neil Vidmar wrote, “Copies should be placed in the jury assembly rooms of every courthouse.” Professor Nancy Marder, Director of the Jury Center at Chicago-Kent College of Law recommended, “Every court should give prospective jurors a copy of this book so that they will understand the jury’s integral role in our democracy.”