I WAS A BELIEVER. A third of our citizens under age 65 may lack health insurance, and our government may bail out bad banks while letting good newspapers rot, but the right to trial by jury was always a bedrock reason I was proud to be an American. So when I received my summons for jury duty last June, I was excited. My friends assured me that my service would be a day of Internet surfing in the spartan, fluorescent-lit jury assembly room.
But I imagined myself a blindfolded Lady Justice, double-edged sword and scales in hand, weighing the evidence Law & Order style.
Two months later, I sat as Juror Number One inside a shabby courtroom in the Multnomah County Courthouse that was decidedly unlike anything out of a serial TV melodrama. The jury box was just 20 feet away from the wide-eyed defendant, who’d been accused of sodomy and unlawful sexual penetration in the first degree. The victim was his 25-year-old niece. As jurors, we waded through three days of evidence that ranged between confusing, boring, and just plain sad. And then, after only eight hours of deliberations, 10 of the 12 of us voted “not guilty.” In Oregon, that’s all the votes you need for a conviction.
But my own verdict? Disillusionment in the first degree. The experience made me want to put our criminal justice system on trial.
Trial by jury is the spine of our democracy, the only guarantee that appears in the body of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “Thomas Jefferson thought that jury service was an even more important civic duty than voting,” says Steve Kanter, a constitutional law professor and former dean of Lewis & Clark Law School. “It’s a critically important way to involve the community in the morality play that is the criminal justice system.”
In a perfect world, each jury represents a cross-section of society, a group of laypeople who will uphold community standards and, most significantly, serve as a check on government power by preventing abuses by corrupt cops, politically motivated prosecutors, and jaded judges. To protect this process and promote frank discussion in the jury room, Oregon law severely restricts post-trial investigations into jury verdicts, with only a few exceptions: the gross misbehavior of a juror (visiting a witness during the trial, for instance), or any coercion or abuse of a juror beyond the normal verbal pushing and shoving that can occur among 12 strangers who are trying to reach a consensus.
“Jury verdicts are very rarely impeached,” says Judge John A. Wittmayer of Multnomah County Circuit Court. “What happens in a jury room is almost sacred.”
MY TRIAL WAS A CLASSIC “he said/she said” loaded with a minefield of intricacies: the alleged victim was a 25-year-old lesbian and a virgin, the defendant was her 47-year-old uncle, and the uncontested acts (oral sex and digital penetration) took place in a friend’s home after a night of drinking at the Lucky Devil Lounge, a strip club in Southeast Portland. The next morning the victim woke up to discover her shirt up and her pants down. She had vague recollections of shoving her uncle’s head away from her body. The defendant said she was the one who initiated sexual contact, pulling his head to her genitals in the middle of the night.