Jury Duty: Peership In A Divided Culture

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice.

This past summer, a Pittsburgh pizza shop owner became somewhat of a local legend. He had received a jury summons and reported to the courthouse as directed in the morning. He then spent that evening in the Allegheny County Jail in contempt of court. His offense? Expressing at every opportunity, often in vulgar terms, his distaste for jury duty and his desire not to serve on a jury.  

To some, his frustration was understandable and his conviction seemingly unjust. After all, he was simply expressing out loud what so many think when they receive a jury duty summons. Jury duty is time-consuming, often grossly underpaid work that involves listening to difficult facts and wrestling with complicated cases. It is little wonder that so many are reluctant to do it.

I don’t imagine that most people are excited to receive a jury duty summons. However, I would argue that it is an unparalleled opportunity to uphold the fundamental values upon which the United States was founded. In a very real sense, serving on a jury is active participation in the ideals that form the foundation of our American system.

The Frontlines of Justice

Our country’s founding principles of liberty and freedom from tyranny permeate every branch of government-- executive, legislative, and judicial. The protections of the individual are deliberate and purposeful; they are designed to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few and to disperse it among the many.

In our justice system, this dispersion of power seeks to dilute its concentration in the hands of a single judge. To that end, the authors of the Constitution and Bill of Rights included protections for citizens accused of a crime. The Sixth Amendment states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” The Fourteen Amendment applies this as well to all who face prosecution in state courts. The Sixth Amendment, through its creation of a right to a jury trial, prevents a court system where the power to deny life or liberty rests with a single judge.

In addition to limiting the power of a centralized government’s ability to deny life and liberty, a jury also serves the critical function of representing the value our country assigns to the individual. The American criminal justice system is “accused-centric.” The rights and protections of the Constitution were all aimed at the individual accused, and not at the prosecuting agency. It is the burden of the government to prove the defendants’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, not for the accused to prove their innocence. In other countries, the accused enjoy no such privilege and instead must prove their innocence. Our system requires the juror to value a defendant and to consider the facts of the case. For the Christian, this dovetails with the call to respect each individual as a member of God’s creation, made in God’s image.

Jury duty is an essential component of an engaged civic life. As a judge in my jurisdiction is fond of saying, serving as a juror is perhaps the most important task a citizen can do, apart from voting or serving in the military. A jury stands as a sentinel against a government’s removal of life and liberty. The job of the jury is to discern whether the government has sufficiently met its burden of proof in establishing a defendant’s guilt. Jurors must ensure that this system works in every jury trial. As I occasionally remark during opening arguments, the government has many resources at its disposal when it prosecutes a citizen: police officers, detectives, lab technicians, scientists, and expert witnesses. Indigent defendants have a lawyer and the twelve members of the jury. The jury must hold the government to the standard it has set, and it must make the government prove every element of every charge brought against an individual beyond a reasonable doubt.

Justice at the Root, Justice as the Fruit

Jury service bears tangible fruit- be that just or unjust. A jury’s task is difficult, yet this difficulty reflects the importance and significance of the outcome. For example, the “not guilty” verdict in the Casey Anthony case sent shockwaves through the court of public opinion. It seemed obvious to TV host Nancy Grace and the throngs of news junkies who followed the case that Ms. Anthony was guilty of killing her young daughter. However, the jury had done the difficult work of painstakingly examining the evidence and considering whether that evidence proved every element of the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. It takes true courage for a jury in any case to state that the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to convict an individual, and even more so in deeply tragic cases like that one.

Conversely, injustice often can occur when a jury does not thoroughly and adeptly weigh the evidence against the accused. Although it is a fictional account, To Kill a Mockingbird portrays the heartbreak of Jim Robinson’s conviction in spite of all the evidence that exonerated him and implicated Bob Ewell in the beating of Mayella Ewell. Atticus Finch, the quintessential champion of justice, makes the following statement during his closing argument:

I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of the courts and in the jury system-that is no ideal to me, it is a living working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence that you have heard come to a decision and restore the defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.

Atticus Finch is correct-- a court of law is no better than the members who compose the jury. With jury trials, our system of criminal justice only works if people who serve on a jury take the task seriously and are dedicated to a thorough weighing of all the evidence and have the courage to follow where the evidence leads them.

A Christian Response: Peership in a Divided Culture

For Christians, serving on a jury presents a unique opportunity for self-reflection and participation in “peership.” The accused is entitled to a jury of one’s peers. Those in the indigent defense world are engaging in serious conversations about what constitutes this peership. In many states, jury pools are culled at random from lists of registered voters or vehicle registrants. This creates a jury pool made up of individuals who are eligible to vote and have the means to own a car. From my own experience in picking juries, I can relate that jury pools often are predominantly composed of white, middle to upper class people. Because I represent indigent individuals, my own clients are often minorities and always from a lower socio-economic class. In short, indigent defendants in this country often look very different from their juries.  

This disparity is problematic for the accused. It can be hard to convey to an individual on the jury who has always lived comfortably in the suburbs what life is like growing up in government housing in the inner city. For example, many individuals hold police officers in high esteem because they are associated with keeping our communities safe. Others associate police officers with brutality and oppression. For many, assistance like food stamps is stigmatized, while for others, food stamps are the only means of obtaining food. Cultural context matters, and peership is increasingly relevant when examining crime in America.

Many who work in indigent defense are raising this issue, filing motions requesting that jury pools be taken from welfare recipient lists in addition to voter and vehicle registries. In my time as an attorney, I have yet to see this motion succeed. Until the criminal justice system begins to consider what constitutes a peer in a pragmatic way, Christians have a unique opportunity to intercede. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Without getting into a theological debate about who is a neighbor, I believe it is fair to argue that a neighbor is not just one who looks like us and lives like us.

The call of Christ to love one another transcends race, class, or even accused status. For Christians, serving on a jury presents a singular opportunity to see the accused as a peer, despite whatever socio-economic or racial differences there may be. A peer considers the accused an equal and approaches the accused on a level playing field. This is essential to true justice in the way the American system articulates justice.

-A. Kayleigh Shebs, Esq. is a criminal defense attorney who represents indigent individuals at all stages of the criminal justice system. She resides in Pittsburgh, PA.