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Bill Maxwell

The honor of serving on a jury

I watched no more than five minutes of the Casey Anthony trial. As a father of two and a grandfather of five, I do not have the stomach, or courage, to witness public spectacles involving the death of innocent young children.

However, one aspect of the trial, which was out of public view, interests me: the jury process. The Anthony trial, like the media-hyped O.J. Simpson trial that also produced a widely unpopular not-guilty verdict, underscores the major virtues of America's jury system and what the system means for justice in the United States.

I have served on two juries, a case of second-degree murder and one of involuntary manslaughter. In the second-degree murder case, my fellow jurors and I found the man not guilty. My gut instinct was that the defendant, a cuckold with a violent temper and a sneering persona, was guilty, but the prosecutor did not prove his case "beyond a reasonable doubt." The manslaughter case ended with a guilty verdict because the prosecution was flawless.

In each case, I was honored to be a juror. A longtime friend who was a prosecutor in Broward County joked that it was a miracle that I, a black male, had not been peremptorily challenged and sent home. I felt special not because I was the lone black each time but because I was permitted to perform what I considered to be a vital duty as a U.S. citizen, no matter my color.

I vividly recall the first time I was summoned in Fort Lauderdale, being in that hot room with nearly 50 other people in the pool awaiting our fate. Naive, I was surprised to hear so many people discussing ways to avoid serving. Some were angry that they had to miss work or could not find babysitters or were too ill to be away from the comforts of home. One man said the government did not have the right to force a citizen to serve on a jury, especially for less than minimum wage. He was dismissed on the first day.

Details of the long-ago trial elude me, but I still remember the heated arguments in the jury room. Two men almost came to blows, but they settled down after someone else calmly introduced a clear line of logic we all acknowledged.

I was impressed by the process, by how ordinary people sifted through complex legal arguments to decide the fate of a fellow citizen. I quickly apprehended the wisdom of our system. The man on trial had a basic right to be judged by a jury of his peers, and my fellow jurors and I had a duty to protect the defendant's right of fairness.

Indeed, I felt privileged to be one who was upholding a fellow citizen's right. As we were seated to deliver our verdict, I recall looking at the defendant and feeling deep down that he was guilty. I also recalled the judge's somber instructions, his emphasis on the high bar of "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

My fellow jurors and I, including a mechanic, a longshoreman, a homemaker and a college English teacher, made our call based solely on the evidence. The attorneys, the media, the general public and even the judge were bound by our decision. As a body, we represented one of the checks and balances that make U.S. justice special in the world.

And now, here I am with everyone else, in the wake of the Casey Anthony verdict. Many of us are mired in the jury-hating offal spewed by the media and social network posts.

According to USA Today, many Facebook pages, for example, have targeted the jury: "Casey Anthony is a murderer no matter what 12 idiots say"; "The jurors in the Casey Anthony Trial are an Embarrassment to America"; and "The JURY Failed Caylee."

Some of the jurors — who were all Pinellas County residents who spent six weeks in Orange County for the trial — are reported to have been physically threatened, and the judge has been reluctant to reveal their names. As one who has sat through two trials as a juror, I am disappointed that so many of us misunderstand or discount the essential role of the jury in American justice. If I am ever summoned again and selected to serve as a juror, I will gladly do so.

The honor of serving on a jury 07/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 8:48pm]
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