Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Civics Lesson

This entry was prompted by my spending the morning sitting and watching a legal proceeding yesterday. I was summonsed to the Jefferson County Courthouse to serve jury duty. How Fun! No, seriously…

It was interesting. The proceedings were something I have never sat through before. The questioning of the jury to select it; the points of law. It was a criminal case being tried so the questioning was much more intense than when I was in the city courts a couple years ago for jury duty.

One of the questions that was asked that none of the jury pool could answer was why does the defendant not need to say word one in his own defense? For those of you not up on your civics lessons, the answer is two-fold. First off, there is a premise written into our American system of jurisprudence; it is embodied in the Fifth Amendment: You have the right to remain silent, say nothing, and not give testimony which would incriminate yourself. This was specifically added to the bill of rights because in the old country you had no such right.

The American courts belong to the people, not the crown. In England you could be compelled to answer questions regardless of whether the answers to those questions would incriminate you. Here, the state has the responsibility of proving you have done something wrong.

The other question that it surprised me that the jury pool could not answer was this: "Why do we have trial by jury and not just trial by judge?" again, this is a function of what it was we were separating from when we fought the American Revolution. It is the court of the people not the crown. It is our judgment that is important. A colleague of mine (who is a lawyer) suggested to me that the underlying reason is more technical.

A judge, with their training in the law and their responsibility to rule dispassionately based only on the law, has no leeway. If the person in the dock has committed a crime, as strictly defined by law, they have no choice but to impose a penalty. A jury, has to consider lots of things that are not entirely law-based. My friend went on to say that if a jury finds a defendant guilty, the judge can overrule them. If the jury acquits, the judge can do nothing. So the jury is there as a sort-of safety valve. They are there to turn ten guilty people free instead of imprisoning one innocent person.

I am glad that I didn't get seated on the jury. I have definite opinions on what the case would have entailed (from both sides) based on the questioning of the lawyers during jury selection. I also have formed an opinion on what the probable outcome of the trial will be based on who got seated, based on the answers they were given.

Luckily, one of the seated jurors is a person from the office. I cannot wait to see what her experience was.

Wherever you are today, I hope you'll be active in your community.

Don Bergquist - September 22, 2009 - Lakewood, Colorado, USA

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