July 2, 1996
Trial by Jury
[Intro: Commentator James Fallows says that he had always regarded jury duty as a nuisance that was unlikely ever to befall him. But after spending a week on a criminal-case jury in Washington, Fallows says that he changed his mind about many things.]
The facts of the case were these: a middle-aged man who admitted he'd spent most of his adult life in prison also admitted trying to sell marijuana to undercover police. When he realized they were police he started to run. They were young; he was old; they soon caught him, and when they pried open his hand they found, along with the marijuana, twenty-three zip-lock bags of crack cocaine. The question at his trial was whether the man possessed the crack "with intent to distribute" -- a guilty verdict on which could send him away for the rest of his life. The prosecution said that the only reasonable explanation for his carrying so many bags was that he planned to sell them. The defense said that he had luckily raided some other dealer's stash and intended to smoke it all himself and not sell any. On the stand the defendant said that when arrested he had been on his way to the grocery store to buy Pampers for his granddaughter, and was holding the twenty-three bags because his own addict relatives might steal it all from him if he left it at home.
At its first poll, the jury split eight-to-four, guilty. Within a few minutes, it was ten to two. Then the deadlock started. One of the not-guilties was a white woman in her forties who said she could believe the Pampers story. The other was a much older black woman whose general hold on reality seemed shaky and who kept saying she had a feeeeeeeling that this man wouldn't sell drugs. In normal life we all could have agreed to disagree, or to let the majority rule. But in that little room, hour after hour, people who in normal life would probably not have spoken to each other had to try to change each other's minds.
The division was not principally racial -- the defendant was black, but so were the judge, most of the policemen, and nine members of the jury, including the most ferocious members of the "guilty" camp. Instead it became an intense contest of mental will, with several very young women bitterly lecturing the holdouts that a hung jury would waste time and money and would be a travesty, with evidence so plain. Eventually they won. At week's end there was a 12-0 guilty verdict, but only after the foreman had prepared a hung-jury form, and the white holdout had collapsed in tears after changing her vote, and the black holdout had then meekly said she didn't want to stand in everyone's way.
I left the courthouse feeling as if justice had technically been done. But I also felt drained by the gravity of the process, sobered by the realization that a jury room is about the only place in which Americans of different classes have to deal with each other as equals, and alarmed by the disproportion between the great effort that went into convicting and jailing this middle-rank criminal and the zero impact his removal would have on the drug scene. The jury process, from the glimpse I had at it, seemed fundamentally serious and sound. The drug laws this jury enforced did not.
Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.