More than 40 years after I covered my first trial...


January 26, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

AND SO, more than 40 years after I covered my first trial, more than 30 years after I first covered arguments before the Supreme Court, about 15 years after I began writing most (but not all) of The Sun's legal affairs editorials; after scores of interviews with lawyers, prosecutors, judges, law professors, criminologists, public safety officials, gun nuts, bleeding hearts, U.S. senators and representatives and members of the General Assembly who served on their respective judiciary committees; after uncounted hours reading opinions, concurrences, dissents, law journals, court histories, biographies of legal figures and novels with a legal theme, and watching "Matlock" and Court TV -- -- I finally became a member of a jury in a criminal trial.

Lemme tell ya, it sure looks different from jury box and jury room than from press table and ivory tower! And so, an expert at last, a few "Thoughts of Foreman Theo":

1. The simpler and faster the process, the less likely jurors will resent the system and the more likely they won't try to duck the next summons.

2. The fairer the process, ditto. The judge in our case did not disqualify or excuse those members of the jury pool who may have thought they had something more important to do or who may have felt some previous experience made them less than perfectly neutral.

3. If juries are to be truly democratic, 1. and 2. are imperative.

4. Defense lawyers and the prosecutor were a little exclusionary in the sense that they appeared to take race into account in manipulating some jurors off the final 12, but this was probably a good idea, because

5. The bi-racial character of the jury contributed to race playing a zero role in our deliberation and decision. Nobody spoke about it, nobody's body language betrayed it, nobody's vote reflected it.

6a. Jurors should be allowed to take notes in the jury box, and

6b. ask questions of the judge and witnesses in open court, because

7a. Memory is imperfect for most people and

7b. Guessing at what a witness would have said to an un-asked question deemed pertinent by a juror can turn a jury into a bull session or even a brawl.

8. The city ought to pay jurors more. Ten dollars a day is fine for jurors working for a downtown employer who provides parking and does not dock your pay for absence due to jury duty. Many jurors don't, and so get penalized. Courthouse area parking is in the $10-a-day range.

9. Finally, I have often written that the judiciary is the least understood of our branches of government. Maybe not.

Jury duty gives thousands of citizens an understanding of courts (and justice and democracy) that they could never acquire about the executive or the legislative branches, short of becoming an officeholder, which, of course, neither the writer nor most of the readers of this column will or would care to become.

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