Jury Knows Best: unless they don't know
Sitting through a jury voir dire is a whirlwind of disappointment for anyone versed in the law. Just yesterday I sat through six hours of jury voir dire in a criminal proceeding. As a law student just three months from graduation, the experience was both fascinating as I will (hopefully) conduct similar voir dire in the not too distant future, but also, the experience was depressing. The abounding ignorance of potential jurors demonstrated a combination of institutional missteps and K-12 educational failures on a substantial level.
Basic concepts of freedom and jurisprudence were completely lost on the would-be jurors and that is a frightening reality. Is it frightening merely because I intend to practice criminal defense? No, the fear elicited from yesterday’s observations is much more far-reaching and impactful than my own selfish desires of helping people find justice. As a former teacher, my inherent will to educate was triggered while listening to countless juror candidates express skepticism regarding a defendant who never takes the witness stand.
In the United States, individuals accused of committing a crime are afforded a presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. Accompanying this presumption of innocence is the FREEDOM to decide whether taking the witness stand to offer testimony is in the best interest of defense. Sadly, this freedom is either not understood by the public at large, or worse, not accepted. When asked by defense council, “If my client does not testify, do you think you could find him Not Guilty?” Response from the juror candidate, “well no, not if he doesn’t take the stand.” Incredulously, the attorney looked in the direction of the judge as if to say, “If this is what we’re working with, my client has no hope.” The judge intervened and repeated the question in a different manner. The candidate stubbornly replied, “I understand the law, I just disagree. He should have to PROVE his innocence.” Thankfully the judge again intervened and explained how she was corrupting the law with her view.
Quick note: For anyone reading this who happens to be unfamiliar with the law as it pertains to PROOF: In the U.S. system referred to as Justice, defendants accused of crime are neither tasked with nor responsible for proving anything. The ‘Burden of Proof’ rests strictly on the state. In criminal trials, the state i.e. prosecution, must meet the highest burden of proof. What is that burden? The burden is to prove elements of crimes charged ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ If the state fails to prove every single element of a charged offense, it is the duty of the jury to find in favor of the accused and render a Not Guilty verdict.
But, when jurors like the person mentioned above, sit on juries, it results in a gross miscarriage of justice. Individual ideology on what the law “should be” bastardizes the system and eliminates the right to a fair trial. The burden of proof should not be altered by the inaction of defense during trial. The burden remains high because freedom and liberty are at stake. The burden remains high because livelihoods are in jeopardy. The burden remains high because the law requires it to remain high.
Avoiding prejudice is often a key strategy when making this difficult decision. If a defendant is an ineffective communicator, or uneducated, or a member of an oppressed minority, or unattractive, or have a criminal past, those attributes can and do influence jurors. Due to this human certainty, the law protects defendants who elect not to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the witness stand. Shyness, anxiety, self-consciousness, are all magnified, put on display and dissected by every person in the courtroom. Thus, requiring defendants to testify would impose an unfair detrimental burden. Concepts like this are truly elementary and should be taught in every high school in the U.S. Not knowing them, or not accepting them is unacceptable.