High on any list of the most cherished beliefs held by Americans is this one: The belief that in meting out justice, our system works because it is based on judgments rendered by "a jury of one's peers."
And, truth be told, we have in the Rodney King case a good example of how a jury of one's peers worked well to acquit the four white Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of King, a black man.
Indeed, it was almost a perfect fit, peer-wise, between the jurors and the accused officers: Twelve jurors -- none of them black and one of them the brother of a retired Los Angeles police sergeant -- all selected from Simi Valley, an overwhelmingly white community that is home to many retired firefighters and policemen.
But there are two sides to every trial, and the Rodney King case exemplifies many of the difficulties involved in selecting a representative, impartial jury. Indeed, as much as anything else, the King case dramatically underscores an ugly judicial reality: That for some "a jury of one's peers" is more American folklore than American law.
Actually, there is nothing in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that assures anyone a representative jury of one's peers. What is assured is an "impartial" jury.
But how do we define an "impartial" jury? According to the dictionary, "impartial" means "without prejudice of bias; fair."
And some legal scholars argue that American tradition rests on the premise that regardless of differences, we all have the
capacity to be fair. And, therefore, we are all peers. Forget about accommodating such things as race, sex and class in jury VTC selection, Columbia Law School professor Gerald Lynch recently told the New York Times. What's crucially important, he said, is our continuing belief in the idea that we can randomly draw 12 people from the community and they will be fair.
But one juror's perception of fairness -- particularly if it's based on cultural bias or miscommunication -- may not, in the end, be the best way to assure justice for all.
For example: Can a predominantly white jury from a conservative, partly rural community such as Simi Valley understand what it's like to be a black man being chased by police? And why he might be afraid to get out of that car when caught?
On "Nightline" last week, we caught a glimpse at the wide gulf existing between those who live in the world of Simi Valley and those who live in the world of Rodney King. Over and over again, one of the jurors in the trial explained to Ted Koppel why he voted for acquittal:
"King controlled the action," the anonymous juror told Koppel. "He could have stopped it. When he got out of the car, he could have put his hands in the air, he wouldn't have been touched."
Maybe they do things differently in Simi Valley and Los Angeles. But there are many who feel the case was decided on the day the defense attorneys were successful in moving the trial from Los Angeles to Simi Valley.
"It effectively changed the composition of the jury, and it worked," former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova is quoted as saying.
Still, there was evidence of some fairness on the part of those in the original 260 juror pool. Of the 2 percent of blacks in the juror pool, many were excused after saying they had strong feelings about King's beating and did not feel they could be fair to the police.
The issues pertaining to jury selection raised by the Rodney King case come at a time when a number of legal scholars think the jury system is in need of a major overhaul.
For one thing, they say, the way jury pools are formed must be broadened beyond the traditional use of voter registration. A 1991 survey on jury service sponsored by an association of defense trial lawyers found that "a disproportionate number of those who have been called and who have served on juries are male and come from higher income groups."
Other studies have found that the jury pool could be increased both in terms of numbers and diversity if driver's license lists were used. Currently, about half the states use such lists, and the Center for Jury Studies has found it yields more young jurors and more minority jurors.
But some have suggested giving up the jury system altogether -- at least in civil cases -- as is done in England. Or to draw juries not from the lay population but from a pool of experts familiar with the issues in a case, as they do in Europe.
But whatever we do or don't do, there is an urgent need to restore the confidence of Americans -- particularly African-Americans -- in the judicial system. We need to believe again in a court system that promises -- and then delivers -- equal justice to all.