Saturday, February 13, 2010

Location, Location

OK, so here's another in my series on The Most Incomprehensible Things About America. Today's installment has to do with the perennial “venue” controversy, especially when it comes to serious crimes. Like murder, for example. And the scenario is always the same. The “alleged perpetrator” is being held in jail on multiple charges... he (or occasionally she) hires a lawyer, or one is provided through the good offices of the taxpayers... and the question of the place of trial comes up. Now surely, through most of human history, when trials were held at all they were held pretty darned close to the scene of the crime – the same district, town, village, city ward, whatever. It made perfect sense; the local community was the one that suffered the loss, they knew the offended party (or were the offended party) and they should be the ones to see to it that justice is done. Right? Wrong! Now it turns out that any trial can be moved far afield because of “pre-trial publicity” -- presumably biased against the defendant. But wait a minute! Where did all this “pre-trial publicity” come from? Well, it was typically initiated, and perpetuated, by law enforcement officials... who never seem to learn to keep their big mouths shut, because if they don't the trial (and the perp) will be taken totally out of their hands, and out of their sphere of influence, and -- who knows? -- might wind up being tried in some mush-headed liberal community and get off scot-free. But where did we get this idea that suspects had to be tried hundreds of miles from the scene of the crime in order to insure objectivity and impartiality? Are defense lawyers so incompetent that they can't effectively counterbalance the crushing pressure of local media... and the angry crowds assembled outside the courthouse with pitchforks, torches, and nooses? That's the impression one gets. And the issue is similar to, if not exactly the same, as this notion of having to pick a completely “unbiased” jury... which in these times of 24-7 news coverage on radio, TV, the press, and the Internet usually means people who are so clueless and out of touch, or simply idiotic, that they haven't heard anything about the case, or if they have they've been unable to “form an opinion” about it. But I say again, the local community has the right to try wrongdoers who have caused it harm, and it also has the right to form opinions – which are, hopefully, subject to modification through arguments and evidence in court. You show me someone who has no opinions, or is incapable of forming any, and I'll show you someone who should never be on a jury. For one thing, everyone is supposed to be tried by “a jury of his peers”, right? Well then, whose “peers” are they who are only chosen based on their invincible ignorance? Certainly not mine!

A recent example – one of many – from this area will illustrate. A man accused of having killed three Pittsburgh police officers last April must himself be astonished that, of 93 prospective jurors, “10 said they had not read or heard about the case”. This is in the face of continuous news converage in all local media for weeks afterwards. They probably haven't heard about 9-11 yet, either – not to mention who is currently president. Who _are_ these people? Most mental patients have a keener awareness of current events than this. But to go on -- “32 said they could not set aside what they know about the case to be fair and impartial.” OK... but is what they already know going to differ significantly from what they'll find out in the courtroom? Anything they don't already know, they're going to find out there. What sort of magic quality does courtroom testimony have that normal “news” doesn't? When the jury finally retires to the jury room to decide on a verdict, have they been rendered any more “fair and impartial” than they were on the first day of the trial? My suspicion is that just the opposite has happened. So where is the demonstration of damages from pre-trial publicity? Then -- “38 said they have a set opinion about the case.” OK, these might be slightly tougher nuts to crack, but once again, they will, in fact, be present at the trial, and will be privy to all the evidence and testimony that can be brought to bear. So isn't it possible that their “set opinion” might not be so set after all?

Of course, it's also possible that the people in these latter two groups said what they said simply to get out of having to serve on a jury -- in which case, shame on them! But let's give them the benefit of the doubt. And you'll also notice that there are still 13 prospective jurors unaccounted for in all this. They are presumably the golden ones who have read or heard about the case but are perfectly willing and able to set it all aside, and who have formed absolutely no opinion on the matter. In other words, they're crazy people. But they're the ones who are most likely, along with the clueless 10, to be in the final pool.

I just find this insistence on utter ignorance on the part of jurors to be... well, not exactly within the spirit of American justice, as originally intended. There was a time when our leaders valued an informed citizenry, and a time when informed citizens were deemed more fit to perform any functions related to the welfare of the community – including jury duty. Juries in the old movies, you'll notice, are typically composed of fairly intelligent and informed people; they are properly dressed and groomed, and employed... and they speak (and seem to think) like typical middle-class Americans of their time. They are, moreover, charged with protecting, and even embodying, community values. But you can imagine what a car full of circus clowns you'd get if the present-day “ignorance criterion” were universally applied; for all I know it would resemble the demonstrators at an IMF/World Bank conference. And these are the people who we want to decide the fate of the accused – no matter how sordid the crime, or how clear the evidence? It makes a mockery of justice... or, I have to say, just the latest mockery of justice.

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