It feels like more and more often I hear the groan from a friend, family member, or colleague that they just got a notice to report for jury duty in the mail. Inevitably, they want to know what my tips are for getting out of jury duty. Typically, when I tell them that jury duty is a sacred opportunity and obligation that is necessary in order to provide just and fair trials to the hundreds of thousands of people caught in the criminal justice system or the thousands of civil cases that go to trial, I am met with more groaning, eye rolls, or anger.
In 1747, Voltaire posited in Zadig, “that generous Maxim, that ‘tis much more Prudence to acquit two Persons, tho’ actually guilty, than to pass Sentence of Condemnation on one that is virtuous and innocent.” In 1785, Ben Franklin took it a step further in writing “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.” Our criminal justice system has taken this concept to heart.
This is where I should stop and say that although I have worked for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, and respect the work that both D.A.s and public defenders do in order to make our system work properly, I knew before entering law school that I had absolutely no desire to do criminal law work once I became an attorney.
While many spend hours trying to figure out how to get out of jury duty, and, once they are at the courthouse, how to get dismissed from a potential jury, I have spent equal time trying to figure out how to make myself, a lawyer who once worked for the D.A., more palatable to the attorneys trying the case to be selected for a jury.
As an aside, the sociological interactions between people who are being forced to judge someone else has always fascinated me. There is a relatively recent podcast called “Against the Rules” hosted by Michael Lewis that discusses the deterioration of the referee in modern American culture that is well worth your time, but I digress.
When I tell people that I want to be on a jury, instead of avoiding it, after they pick their jaw up off the ground, I get asked why. Most often, I’m reminded of a case that my wife became obsessed with while we were in college. A college girl comes home to her rented house with her boyfriend and finds her roommate has been murdered. The police come and begin to investigate and they find bloody fingerprints of a known burglar. However, the police claim that the girl’s behavior is suspicious, and they arrest both her and her boyfriend. This all happens in a small town, and the media surrounding the story and the investigation turn the whole ordeal into an international incident. In America, the evidence would play out and the girl and her boyfriend would be released, while the burglar would be convicted of murder.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen in America – it happened in Italy. The well-known story of Amanda Knox provides the perfect example of why I am so grateful to live in America. Even in Italy, an American ally, and by all accounts a very forward-thinking and progressive country, the justice system seeks to punish rather than acquit. In America, every person that is tried is entitled to an attorney, whether they can afford one or not, and in most (although unfortunately not all) cases, even public defenders are good attorneys who believe in the rule of law and simply want to make sure that every person is provided with the protections that our constitution provides them. In America, Amanda Knox would have been tried in front of a jury – twelve people from the community in which the crime occurred – instead of a judge who has absolute power. In America, there are evidentiary rules that prevent circumstantial evidence from being the basis for a guilty verdict. In America, if someone is found innocent, the D.A. cannot appeal the acquittal. In Italy, none of these things are, or were, true.
In my briefcase, I carry around a pocket Constitution. I’m not sure that I’ve opened it more than half a dozen times in the years that I’ve had it, but it’s comforting to me to know that it’s always there. I became a lawyer because I believe in our system of rules and laws, even though it doesn’t always get the finding right. Even when I am exasperated at the frivolous lawsuits that get filed against builders and general contractors in California, I know that over the span of millennia, unlike the system in Italy, the American system will get it right more often than not.
So why do I want to be on a jury? Part of it is a feeling of civic pride and duty to participate in a tradition of American jurisprudence since the country’s beginnings, but another part is that if I am in the jury pool if you’re ever wrongly accused of a crime, and if you are in the jury pool if I’m ever wrongly accused of a crime, then we actually can have our fates decided by a jury of our peers, rather than a jury of the people who didn’t know how to get out of jury duty that day, and that is truly when American justice can prevail.
A slightly different version of this article was first published in Bay Window, July 2019.