I recently had a chance to observe my first federal criminal trial, and while it was fascinating, I also found it somewhat troubling.
The case involved some financial issues, and as I sat there listening to the questions being asked by the lawyers and the answers being given by the witness, I thought a lot of the stuff was going over the juror’s heads.
I’ve taught accounting for over 30 years, and I know how students struggle with many of the basic concepts, and it takes lots and lots of studying and practice for students to finally understand such concepts.
To expect a random sample of jurors to understand such concepts while just sitting there listening to exchanges between lawyers and witnesses is unrealistic, and to me, somewhat unfair.
Even when expert witnesses are brought in, it’s still does not enough time for jurors to fully understand what is being presented.
I’m sure the same issues come up in medical malpractice cases and other technically oriented cases.
I’m not sure what a better solution would look like, or even if the prosecutors or defense lawyers would want to see a change in how jurors are selected. I’m sure there are times when the lawyers for both sides feel that a less informed jury pool is better for their side.
But given the power that a juror has over the outcome a trial and thus a person’s future, it seems that potential jurors should have at least a basic knowledge of what the trial is going to be about.
If the case is going to have a heavy dose of financial evidence, then it only seems fitting that a juror should be able to show that they have a basic grasp of financial concepts. What is the difference between sales and profits? What is the difference between profits and cash flow? What is meant by depreciation? The knowledge level of the potential jurors can be judged by giving a quick, 15-minute multiple choice test to the jury pool prior to selection.
Medical cases and scientific cases would have their own set of tests.
I know this would add more time to selecting a jury, but I think the extra time would lead to a jury pool that is going to end up making “better” decisions.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to question how a jury is chosen, and there must be good reason why the current process is used. But even if there is some arguments against an approach such as the one I propose, I don’t think such arguments would outweigh the benefits of having an informed jury.
The jury would not have to have experts in the field that is going to be discussed in the trial, but they should have a familiarity with the case concepts.
I know that if I was on trial, I would prefer to see a jury that understands what is going on, and would be able to see why I am innocent.
The other option, a jury of your peers, can lead to a set of jurors who become disengaged for significant parts of the trial because it seems as if everyone is speaking in a different language, one that some members of the jury don’t understand. The result is that way too familiar glazed eyes look I see with my students, and I think I noticed in some of the jurors in the trial I sat in on.
I am a big believer in our system of justice, it works most of the time.
But that doesn’t mean that it is perfect.
Maybe once we get rid of the death penalty, we can turn our attention to how best to choose a jury.
Doing so will make a good justice system even better.