Juries: Our Constitutional Safeguard
Probably the most overlooked aspect of the American constitutional framework is the critical role that juries were intended to play in criminal cases. Few realize that our founding fathers universally held that the right to a jury trial was more essential to preserving liberty and promoting justice than even free elections or a free press. The framers’ logic was sound. There is no greater check upon the government than insisting that before anyone is convicted of a crime and forevermore branded a criminal, twelve ordinary people must be convinced that it should be so.
Throughout American history, juries have played a pivotal role in keeping the government from overstepping its bounds. But juries are not a magic wand, and for them to return true verdicts:
- Juries must be truly representative of their communities. For example, the evil of segregation and the miscarriages of justice that it produced would have ended years earlier if only the Fourteenth Amendment had been enforced to have Southern juries reflect their communities.
- Juries must be permitted to search for the truth. Unfortunately jurors are all too often treated as children, with courts shielding them from hearing all of the relevant evidence. Miscarriages of justice often correspond to this fact.
- Juries must be permitted to render verdicts according to the dictates of their conscience. This is not an invitation to anarchy, but rather a commonsense step to insure the triumph of justice. There are two typical scenarios where unjust prosecutions occur. One is where a criminal statute has been poorly crafted and runs counter to the moral consensus of the community. The second is when the problem is not the law itself, but rather an absurd or unjust application. One of the reasons we have juries is to safeguard against prosecutors pushing cases that violate commonsense, decency and justice. Therefore, informing juries of their absolute constitutional power to acquit does not invite disrespect for the law, but rather, purifies the law to allow the law and justice to be on the same page…..the very purpose behind juries to begin with.
It has been an unfortunate trend in the American legal system that the role of juries has become smaller, while the role of judges has become greater. This trend should be reversed.