September 4, 2023

A Meditation on Donald Trump and Juries

 That Donald Trump may soon find himself in a courtroom at the defendant’s table has led me to think about juries generally and juries that may stand in judgment of the former president in particular.

I have never served on a jury, although I once came close to being selected. (I made a first cut, but was not included in the final selection.) Conventional wisdom declares that the more education one has the less likely you are to be chosen to be on a jury. My chance of ever being on a jury is likely slight.

It is sometimes argued that jury selection is the most critical aspect of a trial. Attorneys on each side want to select jurors likely to favor their side of the case. The task is difficult, as conspicuous indicators of bias regularly result in the dismissal of potential jurors. If the defendant is accused of killing a policeman, for example, relatives of police officers will surely be excluded from the jury pool.

In a criminal case, prosecutors look for people likely to possess strong law-and-order sentiments. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, seek sympathetic souls, particularly if the defense’s case is weak. An empathetic juror who doesn’t have the fortitude to stand up for his or her opinion, however, will likely be ineffective as an advocate for the defendant.

In principle, a jury should be objective and unbiased. Our adversarial judicial system, however, does not directly seek such a jury, instead relying on the interests of competing parties to select a panel likely to render a just verdict. This system works surprisingly well. Juries make news when they render verdicts widely thought to be incorrect, but such news is uncommon. Nevertheless, the time a jury spends deliberating is a time of great anxiety for all concerned.

Again in principle, the ideal juror should be capable of understanding both the law and the evidence and be able to relate one to the other. Potential jurors are typically given a questionnaire to rule out certain disqualifying characteristics. They are then questioned by attorneys on both sides. This process attempts to weed out the prejudiced and mentally unsuitable.

What potential jurors are not generally filtered for is logical thinking. It is easy for jurors to be led astray by emotion or to reach conclusions that do not strictly follow from the evidence, the law, and the charge of the judge. Being a juror is unlike nearly every other role one is likely to experience in life. One must take into account material presented in the courtroom and exclude from consideration everything else. Jurors are expected to use their common sense yet introduce into consideration no knowledge obtained outside the courtroom. This is, in a sense, contradictory, but it usually seems to work out in practice. For instance, a juror may appeal to his or her own experience but cannot introduce something heard on a television newscast about the defendant. It is difficult to know how strictly logical jury deliberations are in practice.

Because I have a doctorate in computer science with a minor in mathematics, I believe I can reason about evidence and the law particularly well. I believe this would make me an excellent juror, but attorneys on either side might consider me either unpredictable or an actual threat.

This brings us to the matter of Donald Trump. Although I believe that, as a juror in almost any criminal case, I could logically reach an objective, proper verdict, I am less certain in any case involving the former president. I would almost certainly believe Trump to be guilty going into the trial, whatever the charge. I think I could weigh the evidence fairly. If, however, I found the evidence wanting, I just might be tempted to vote guilty for the sake of the country. Although I doubt that situation would arise, I could become, legally speaking, a loose cannon. Defense attorneys will try to filter out anyone with proclivities such as mine. I wonder how hard that will be to do. How my Americans would, given the right circumstances, be tempted to engage in jury nullification?

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