Time for Professional Jurors?

by Diane Dimond on May 23, 2011

Taking a Seat Here Can Change Your Life

Having spent the better part of the last two weeks watching an excruciatingly long jury selection for a capital murder case I’m left wondering – is it time for the United States to begin using professional jurors?

During the last couple weeks I watched intently as prospective jurors took the stand to explain to the court the financial hardship that leaving work to judge another would bring to their lives. Some of them work for employers who grant paid leave for jury duty but often it covered only a day or two. Many others worked for struggling small businesses or are self-employed and they explained that every day they didn’t show up at work was lost profit or a day’s pay docked off their paycheck.

Taking the Oath

Besides harsh financial hardships to jurors in this economically topsy-turvy time there is the issue of lay people trying to decipher intricate legal language and instructions. For the most part, today’s jurors have no training in the law and wouldn’t know a dictim from a disjunctive allegation. They’re given a super-crash course in the law applicable to their particular case but, overall, the system isn’t friendly.

Listen, Absorb and Ask No Questions

During trial jurors are not allowed to pass a note to the judge or raise their hands to ask a question if they don’t understand something. And, let’s admit, for most of us much of what lawyers say in court is mumbo jumbo.

In addition, some states don’t allow jurors to take notes in court or to have a copy of their instructions in the deliberation room. They are often put into that deliberation room with no idea of how to even begin to talk about a verdict.

Add to this confusing realm the possibility that panelists might be exposed to grisly crime scene or autopsy photos of tiny children. In rare trials, they will be asked to vote on whether the defendant should be put to death for the crime they committed. Some people can take the strain and bounce back from judging others while some citizens come away shell shocked.

All in all, jury duty is an awesome responsibility and it’s been known to literally, change the lives of those who serve.

Courtrooms Can Intimidate

I can’t help thinking there might be a better, less intrusive way for all of us to all have access to fair, impartial and educated panels to hear court cases, from murder and medical malpractice cases to charges against organized drug kingpins or corporate fraudsters.

Now, if you’re thinking professional jurors wouldn’t constitute a “jury of your peers” realize that nowhere in our U.S. Constitution are we promised that. We are not guaranteed a panel that looks just like us: Barby the teacher, Bob the plumber or Diane the journalist. The U.S. Constitution simply assures American citizens a “right of trial by jury.”

So who’s to say that jury can’t be a group of people whose occupation is that of professional juror? The requirement could be for them to take a 1 or 2 year study course before being assigned to hear cases. Courts would save the paltry daily sums they currently pay jurors and put it in a pot to help pay these pros a living wage.

OK, Not THESE Retired Judges

Another idea that’s been floated is for retired judges, lawyers or law professors to serve as jurors as they are already fully schooled in the ways of the courtroom. Critics of this idea worry that these legal-eagles will over-think the cases they hear or exert undue influence over other professional jurors of lesser status.

Look, nothing is perfect. Certainly our current system is not as we see in the increasing number of cases overturned when new DNA evidence is found. So isn’t it time to take a serious and investigative look at ways that might make it better?

I ran the idea of turning retired legal types into jurors by a dear friend of mine.  He startled me with the question:  What percentage increase in the conviction rate do you think there’d be with professional jurors?  He believes the legal fraternity would act like judges as well as jurors in their minds and predicted the conviction rate would jump considerably.

Courthouses Can Create Brain Fog

I’m not so sure. But then again neither is anyone else because we’ve never fully tested the idea.

I just remember the haunted looks I’ve seen on the faces of many jurors I’ve encountered during my career covering court cases. Some have told me in post-trial interviews they found it hard to concentrate in the unfamiliar territory of a court room. During proceedings they worried about jobs, family and their peace of mind.

If there are other citizens better suited for this job, people who could more keenly focus on the job at hand, don’t we owe it to everyone involved in the system to try it out?

 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

John Ware May 23, 2011 at 10:40 am

I know directly from whence you speak. Lots of people have been called to serve on jury duty. I personally know of five people who currently hold either the post of CEO, CEO or CFO for the five largest banking companies in America who have gotten out of jury duty by having their lawyers take care of it. Again, power rules in this great country of ours; it’s not just the matter of money, but of influence. Can you imagine a Jamie Dimond (not one of the five, by the way) having to take two months off to sit in a jury room with 11 of his “peers?” (sarcasm and emphasis warranted). Absolutely not. Most of us have been nurtured to believe in so many “American” principles as hard work, equality and civic duty. If you check records, you will find that the average juror is a white, lower middle class individual who has been unemployed at least 3 years of his working career, and who earns an average of $32,574 per year. There is a “peer” for you.

However, getting to the heart of your posit, Diane, it is extremely difficult to serve within the existing jurist system. I have done so three times, two of those times for major felonies. Thankfully out here in CA we can ask questions and stop the jury deliberations for clarification and rulings. I think the system should be able to compensate the jurors, however, as we are giving up our livelihood for weeks or months for the state.

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Diane May 23, 2011 at 10:11 pm

ABQ Journal Reader writes:

“I enjoy your columns and especially liked this one. I do have one suggestion regarding the phrase “feel badly.” Unless the grammar rules have changed, “feel badly” means your fingers are numb. Since feel is an intransitive verb it requires an adjective, not an adverb. So I “feel bad” or “feel good” is still correct, I believe.

Cranky old English teacher “

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Michelle Bart May 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Great article Diane as always! Less than 24-hours to “D-Day” or should we call it “Z-Day?” The past couple of weeks have been more like a zoo than the justice system working. Time will tell what Jose will open with but based on the jury selection and other aspects of the case against Casey; will Casey get a fair trial?

Keep up the great writing!
M

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Jeff Liddell May 24, 2011 at 2:07 am

I have sat on 3 juries in my lifetime, and the railroad I worked for at the time always paid me while I was on jury duty, one of the trials was a lengthy trial of 8 weeks in a federal court and when the case dragged on I was hassled a bit, but evidently those Federal judges swing a big stick and his honor made a call to my job and I was not bothered any longer. I also had a labor union that could have become involved if necessary. We did however lose two jurors over the duration because they became increasingly worried about their jobs and did less concentrating on listening to testimony. When performing a civil service as part of being a citizen, one should not have to worry about losing pay or losing their job, they should simply be allowed whatever time necessary to perform that service, most trials do not last that long anyway. I don’t think I like the idea of “professional jurors” because jury pools would become to familiar to judges and lawyers, and we all know that familiarity can breed temptations. It has been five years since I last reported for jury duty, and I was not selected for a jury, but since I am now on disability from the railroad, I did offer to volunteer for repeat service if such a thing existed. I have not been called upon since. I have never shunned or tried to get out of jury duty, along with voting in elections, it is the most importand civic duty we have.

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Mary May 24, 2011 at 9:43 am

Diane, I have to disagree with you on this subject. You’re too quick to dismiss the corrupting influence of being a paid juror. One only has to examine what is happening all around us, in big and small town, city, and state as well as federal governments. The people who get jobs, appointments because of who they know, the gross politicization and power brokering, and what that would mean to the victims of crimes, those who are falsely accused, and the wider community, when a government, big or small. Given that so much isn’t reported in the US these days, perhaps Diane hasn’t heard about it, but in left wing controlled cities, towns and states, even citizens who merely wish to testify before their local council or the legislature on an issue, are being denied their rights, and verbally attacked and demeaned. The taxpayer paid for lawyer for the Massachusetts governor, attempted to demonize and censor citizens who opposed her position on legislation a few weeks back, because she felt, and stated for all to hear, that they had no right to speak on the issue, because as Christians they were irrelevant now.

In a perfect world it would be one thing, Diane, but we’re not only not perfect (no one is), but our governments and too much of those who attain power feel emboldened to stamp on our rights and freedoms, because they aren’t punished or held to account for doing so. We can’t afford to give them even half an inch more of an opportunity to spread more corruption.

We must continue with our unpaid, civilian juries, it might be an inconvenience, but it’s one we can’t afford to abandon.

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Frank Praytor May 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

I was actually put on a jury once; summoned six times, picked once, a minor case. Defense lawyers seek only those they deem least qualified, least informed, easiest to influence. Thus we hear/read of outrageous jury behavior and decisions that make a sham of the justice system. Jury selection should be done by an eminently qualified panels of psychiatrists, or other uninvolved groups. Anybody but lawyers.

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Diane May 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm

DD Web Site Reader Jim Cameron writes:

“I love jury duty and would only want to have my case, if ever, heard from my peers.

I have been impressed each time I was called by the diversity of potential jurors. Few tried to shirk this important civic duty.

I would trust a cross-section of citizens in being able to understand complicated evidence. As for “professional jurors”… who would set the criteria and who would take the job.

Arbitration is a “professional” alternative, but if my liberty was on the line, I’d only want a jury of my peers. “

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Geno May 26, 2011 at 11:25 am

It’s about time we have something of this type of Jury System. I actually understand emotions in a Jury Trial, I have been on two major cases and found that the hold out on one, a Grandmother that related to the defendant, was our hold out. This was a second degree murder trial and we had the evidence to convict, but all she could think about was his twenty-five years of life. Please note, this guy was a two time loser before and this, the third strike, would put him away for life. “GOOD”, as he had numerous convictions of violence already established and did NOT have a future in Society.
Therefore, we need some form of Professionalism to make logical non-bias judgements to fix this system. There’s so much more that needs to be corrected, but this would at least a short term bandaid.

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Robert May 30, 2011 at 5:46 am

I have thought about this as well. I served on a grand jury and the education level of some of those on the jury scared me. They simply had no idea what was being discussed much of the time. However I think we should move to a tribunal system with 1 judge who is appointed and 2 jurors that are elected. The jurors for any given case would be chosen by lot and each side would have the right to replace any they deem prejudiced. I see no advantage in having 12 jurors. And it would cost a lot less.

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Robert May 30, 2011 at 5:52 am

P.S. I also think all proceedings should be televised or be made available to the public to ensure our professional jury system doesn’t devolve into a “star chamber”

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Diane June 1, 2011 at 11:08 am

Huffington Post Reader MysticLady writes:

“Like your idea!
As a self-emplo­yed person, I was surprised at the ‘gestapo’ attitude I encountere­d when I showed up for jury duty. I was told the only way out was ‘death’. They thought that was funny. So now it’s ‘death, taxes and jury duty’.
I have had the thought that all the evidence, arguments, etc should be fed into a computer program for a decision. “

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Diane June 1, 2011 at 11:09 am

Huffington Post Reader jhNY writes:

“These are the most difficult times ever faced by citizens of the democracy, by comparison to which all other times seem rosy. Forget the Great Depression­. it wasn’t really so great. The Civil War? Conducted on a far more civil basis than is commonly understood­.

How do I know? Because in those periods of faux extremis, jurors somehow managed to make it to and through jury duty, even though they might have been occasional­ly confused by courtroom layout and might have wished mightily they were somewhere else, whereas now, in the most difficult times ever, a suggestion like this one has surfaced, whereby mere citizens might be replaced by profession­al jurors.

Although the citizen juror has often been mischaract­erized as the cornerston­e of our legal system, if not our form of government outright, he is a mere amateur in the halls of justice compared to a former judge or lawyer, who for a small fee, can be pressed into service to replace him. For that matter, why have trials? Profession­als might, having seen so many, be able to foresee outcomes of future trials before they take place, and having seen so many sentences handed down previously­, could easily forecast what they should be, and act accordingl­y. Saving us real money down the line, as we could eventually sell off valuable courthouse real estate once we get the whole profession­al juror process on-line. “

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Ella June 25, 2011 at 1:47 am

Professional jurors? My mother espoused that position in the early 60’s when F.Lee Bailey was seeking a new trial for Dr.Sam Sheppard. And that was about the same time she started saying that the TRUTH was the last thing sought in a trial.

Ella

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Kris July 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm

After the Casey Anthony trial I firmly believe that some kind of training should be mandated for jury’s to better understand the legal proceedings of the actual trial they are sitting on.

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Carol Harris July 7, 2011 at 11:47 pm

I like the idea of professional jurors, especially in light of the lack of understanding shown by the jury in the Casey Anthony case.

On another subject, there’s one place where “who’s” should be changed to “whose” — in the following sentence, before the word “occupation.” “So who’s to say that jury can’t be a group of people who’s occupation is that of professional juror?”

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Mac Ambo July 11, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Absolute rubbish. Professional juries would be a Pandora’s box chock full of corruption.
And regarding the Anthony case – the Prosecution had more circumstantial evidence, as presented, to make a stronger case against George Anthony, as rightly pointed out by the defense. As it was, this trial on most counts was overcharge by government, based on the ire of police officials who were lied to early on – and on the rightful charges – the jury saw it as it was and did the right thing. Conversely, the jury also saw what wasn’t, and did the right thing.

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