Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blagojevich and the Jury--Tuesday Journal

Disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich scored a backhanded victory yesterday when a jury failed to agree on 23 of the 24 charges leveled against him in his corruption trial. The only count on which he was convicted, lying to the FBI in 2005, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Before the dust had settled on the declaration of a mistrial on the other 23 counts, there were vows of re-trial and appeal.  This time, of course, a retrial would involve taxpayer money rather than private sources of funding.

I say, let's focus on the one conviction, and get him out of the public eye for five years.

Here is a guy who loved fame and celebrity and appearance, and assumed he could coast on charm, while the state of Illinois continued to slide into near-bankruptcy.  (If not for a constitutional guarantee that teacher pensions will be paid, many retired State employees who were mandated into the pension system would lose their main source of income.)  Psychologists have characterized Blagojevich as having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

Hearing him discussed on an NPR panel, I saw the image of Eric Roberts' portrayal of the tacky Paul Snider in "Star-80". Blagojevich killed no one, only slaughtered the already vulnerable reputation of the state of Illinois.

The jury's two-week deliberation in the case was difficult at best.  According to news reports, the jury's lone dissenting voice on some of the counts, (including the charge that Blagojevich attempted to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected to the Presidency) was a "retired woman" who echoed the lackluster opinion heard on some Chicago streets: "He is a sleaze, and he spoke unwisely, but did his actions really constitute a crime?"

(There was no Henry Fonda with the fateful switchblade to sway the last holdout, like in "12 Angry Men".)

On other counts, the jury was more evenly split, but not consistently across the board.

To those who have followed the impeachment, indictment, and trial as reported in various media, it appeared that the Prosecution had a solid case against Rod Blagojevich.  The Defense offered a weak case, to say the least, and bragged after the verdict that they in fact offered no defense whatsoever, and the jury still could not agree on any criminal activity.  I don't buy the notion that Blagojevich was simply all bluster, that he was just doing what politicians do everywhere, and that no crimes were committed.

And that leads me to wonder: what type of persons could have had so little knowledge about the events surrounding this case that they would have been deemed "objective" enough to serve on the jury?

The Sixth Amendment provides for "a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."  Interestingly, while the idea of a "jury of one's peers" has entered the American lore, it is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.

And so, I struggle with the paradox of our jury system as it is still utilized.  The pervasiveness of news, from the TV to the Cell phone, all but assures that any potential juror who is not familiar with a high profile case such as this one may not have the critical skills necessary to analyze its nuances.  Add to that the complexity of the law, and one wonders if anyone who is not well-versed in legal jargon is equipped to hear such a case.

In addition, jurors are often inconvenienced, separated from job and family, badly compensated for time and effort, and subject to conditions that are uncomfortable. And in a world of rampant corruption, even jurors can't automatically be assumed to be above the fray.

Is this the best way to serve justice? 

While I am not yet a proponent of the idea of Professional Juries, we have come to a tipping point in which technology and the incredible complexity of the world demands that we re-evaluate the manner by which we select jurors, and customize this process based on the specific requirements of the case.  We must keep up with so much in our culture, it seems irrational to let the jury system remain antiquated.  It does no one any good, neither defendant, public, nor juror alike, to ask anyone without the knowledge required to assess a particular case to render a judgment in it.

Jurors need to have the information and knowledge necessary to accurately hear and interpret specific cases. A balance must be achieved between complete, "objective" ignorance, on one hand, and the attainment of an educational level that allows the juror to remain open-minded, and not unduly swayed by media.  A re-working of the initial survey would be in order.  Maybe we should return to the idea of "a jury of one's peers" in earnest.

1 comment:

  1. I've got to disagree with your final statements in this post Tom.

    I'm not aware of the details of the individual case but I wish to deal wth your comments about the jury system.

    Here in the UK the right to trial by jury has recently been revoked. Whilst the controls on this are very strict - either due to the complexity of the case of the perceived difficulty in being able to get a jury who will be free from intimidation or corruption due to the nature of the case - it is still something I fundamentally disagree with.

    Thefunction o the jury is to represent the "common man" within the legal system, to allow the general populace to agree on whether the legal system has identified the correct perpetrator, and once you remove that you lose one of the checks and balances of the legal system that works on the principles of justice.

    With regards to your concept of minimum qualifications for the jury I find that incredibly divisive. Do qualifications determine ability to understand concepts? Personally I've known university lecturers (from my own Maths course) who were barely able to function outside of the lecture hall and people who've flunked every test going but have a greater understanding of human behaviour than I will ever have.

    How do you identify which potential juror is most equipped to deal with each case objectively?