A Jury of One's Peers

February 22, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--There are no television cameras rolling as we dutifully arrive at the courthouse. No Court TV reporter covers our descent into the whitewashed brick basement. No psychologist waits to scientifically test our soft or hardheartedness.

In the public world, jury duty may come these days with a whiff of celebrity. Jurors have become as notorious as defendants. In the trials of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, of the Bobbitts and the Menendez brothers, they have gone from the courtroom to the green room.

But the closest any of us comes to high drama is in the words of the Juror's Creed that arrived in the mail with our summons. ''I am a juror,'' it reads. ''I am a seeker of truth.''

This is what my fellow ''seekers of truth'' look like this frigid morning. Thirty-odd strangers, men and women in every shape and size -- from the woman with a portable phone in her right ear to the man with an earring in his left -- drinking coffee out of vending machines, watching Dr. Ruth on a rickety television set, waiting to perform their civic duty.

The jury system in America has changed, but not only in terms laid out by the tabloids. As recently as the 1970s, a jury was still picked in many places according to the Key Man system. A prominent man or a group of men in a community would literally choose the pool of jurors -- sometimes from a telephone book.

Political theory said that juries were to bring community values into the courtroom. But for a long time, the values they brought were often those of the few, key, white, men.

Today computers do the picking randomly. More of us are put on jury duty and fewer of us let off. By now, more than 17 percent of adult Americans have served on a full trial.

To say that the jury system is more democratic than it was is to put this case mildly. And yet we seem to be more, not less, critical. The last trusted institution is being doubted.

On television, those who serve on the most celebrated cases are analyzed and criticized. In print, they're accused of bias on the basis of race or of gender. In the public mind, there is an emerging suspicion that a verdict represents nothing more than the idiosyncratic views of 12 individuals.

Jurors take their seats today at the risky intersection of changing demography and changing community values. They bring different life experiences and reflect diverse views. Some of these changes enhance our faith in justice. Some diminish it.

In 1964, the man accused of killing Medgar Evers was let off by two hung juries of white men. It took 30 years and a racially mixed jury before Byron De La Beckwith was found guilty this month.

Justice may emerge over time. It may also seem to change with venue. In the Rodney King case, two juries -- one from a white suburb, the other from the city -- came to different conclusions about police brutality.

As for changing values? In the not-so-distant past, a husband who killed his wife when he found her in bed with another man was rarely charged with more than manslaughter. It was considered a crime of passion.

Now a battered woman or a battered child can present abuse as a mitigating circumstance. It's why one jury decided Lorena Bobbitt had gone nuts when she took the knife to her husband. It's why two other juries got hung up on the level of the Menendez brothers' guilt -- manslaughter or first-degree homicide.

However many doubts there are about these verdicts, there are fewer doubts about the legitimacy of this line of defense. In the words of Diane Wiley of the National Jury Project, ''This is how community standards evolve. We have decided that crimes of passion can include things that happen to women and children.''

The Juror's Creed may tell Seekers of Truth to check our emotions at the door, but people cannot hang up a life experience. Juries are more diverse and so, perhaps, are their decisions.

We value this diversity in America when it allows new voices to be heard. We worry about diversity when it seems to fracture us according to race, gender, class, geography. Our attitudes toward the jury and toward justice are no exceptions.

But what a shame that we judge the system on a handful of tabloid cases.

On this icy morning, this standby juror -- dismissed with a thank you and a good afternoon -- saw a different story. Not a story of a nation or a legal system splintering. A story rather of a thousand small courthouses, where strangers come together from separate lives every day to perform a rare act of something called citizenship.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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